Never been to Sri Lanka but thinking of coming? Then this personal snapshot may tempt you.
Sri Lanka is a 10-hour direct flight from London. Despite the 5.5-hour time difference, the jetlag is not a problem especially if you are going to take it as easy as we did. Flicking our toes in the sand, roasting our bods in the sunshine and an occasional swim when the heat (32C) and sweltering humidity became unbearable, was the highlight of our relaxed days – far from the hustle and bustle of London.
In March, the heat is just perfect (32C day and 29C night), the rainy season has not hit full swing yet despite a couple of short showers now and then, but the big shock to the system when you arrive is the humidity. As soon as you step off the Sri Lankan aircraft you feel like being in a hot sauna and this feeling will remain whatever you do, day and night. Say hello to frizzy hair but also a very good shaves – I am told by my other half, Ben.
Sri Lankan food is very similar to Indian – all sorts of spice infused curries accompanied by mouth-watering condiments. Think Biryani, Tikka Masala, Tandoori but more spicy, succulent, intense and so much better than your usual European equivalent. I am a big fan of this food, full of exotic ingredients such as lemon grass, pomegranate, chilli, lime, coconut, banana and mango alongside of tasty fresh seafood temptations. My dish of the week must be the simply grilled lobster with ripe pineapple chutney/jam and fresh lime. Ben was very partial to spicy mutton curry – slow cooked meat with pineapple curry and coconut sambol. Are you salivating yet?
When it comes to booze, the story is not so positive unless you can live on cocktails, which we tried our best until we read the Drinks Business article on the top most calorific drinks. Real killer of joy that is. Wine selection is poor (as you may imagine, demand and distribution and all that) and even our 5 star resort wine list was sadly disappointing. Call me a snob but Black Tower, Nederburg, Bellingham, Jacob’s Creek, Turning Leaf, Trivento and KWV are best suited to supermarket shelves and certainly not fine dining. Luckily I was prepared for the worst and brought some essentials with me (a bottle of port and champagne) but after being told that we would be charged £50 for the privilege to enjoy these with our evening meal, we decided to glug the lot on the beach. Local beer branded as Lion Lager and 3 Coins is well how shall I put it…ok when you have just arrived to your resort after almost 3-hour sweltering journey but shortly you realise that it is just another distant cousin of watery and dull Budweiser Bud (no the Czech one obviously).
But what I loved the most is the lovely scent that follows you throughout the day. Sweetly infused maple syrup pancakes and refreshing & hot Ceylon tea for breakfast. Aromas of roasted brioche sandwiches with honey French dressing and minty mocktails being slurped in the late afternoon sunshine. Sunset strolls spiced by salty, seaweed and mineral smells of the waves crushing into the rocks. Cinnamon scented dinners with the subtle surf of the sea and exotic fragrances of places far far away.
There are tonnes of activities and sites you can visit but the place has this strange power over you to make you do as little as possible. The locals are friendly natured with a gentle, peaceful air and generally with a smile on their face. Maybe the religion (mostly Buddhist) has something to do with it. The smiles are infectious, I will really need to watch myself when I get back to London not to smile too much. But even if you become as lazy as us there are things you must experience.
Find your local cricket ground and go and watch cricket match. We climbed up the Fort at Galle and watched Sri Lanka against Bangladesh and despite my ignorance of the sport I can see how well it is suited to this climate and culture here. Try yoga or massage – both very empowering and relaxing at the same time and one of those ‘nice things’ that we never have time for at home. Be a little kid again and play in the sea, pretend you are surfing the waves and let them crash against you and spit you out on the sandy smooth beach. Take a ride in Tuk Tuk to feel the soft wind in your hair and watch the world pass you by.
You must experience it yourself.
What happens at Master of Wine bootcamp seminar…
Despite our pact that “what happens in Bordeaux stays in Bordeaux” I wanted to give you a little feel on what goes on at the annual MW bootcamp. Just in case you are wondering whether to join this crazy MW challenge I hope this will encourage you to give it a go.
As a first year student you may be invited to join the one-week seminar held in Rust, Austria where you get to try Gruner Vetliners and Rieslings to your hearts content. This is also where you are going to make friends for life, realise that you will have to become a superhero to pass this wretched exam and consume plentiful amounts of beer to get you though it.
If you manage to proceed to the second year, you are up for a real MW bootcamp. For one week your knowledge and beliefs will be challenged to the limits. Every morning (8am!) you start with a blind tasting of 12 wines under exam conditions with detailed feedback afterwards. Shortly you will release that it is not enough to be a talented taster and display good logic in your answer but also you need to be able to write legibly yet fast and become a master of time management. Talents that I am miles away from mastering.
After a brief lunch, you are treated to one or two seminars. We were lucky to have some topical and interesting talks this year – on wine faults, barrel choice, climate change and a 3-hour masterclass on sherry – which we all loved.
There is also a little thing called the practical and theory exam in the middle of week which is something that many get a bit nervous about (well I was petrified) but the feedback that you are given at the end of the week can be very empowering (Thanks Phil!).
And of course there are the evenings. MW students can work hard but they play much harder. After an intensive day, to be able to relax and have fun is crucial as far as I am concerned. From my photos on Facebook you may get a misleading message that we just play table football, pool and ping pong all night. That is so wrong as we have done surprisingly extensive research into Heineken, ate our bodies in foie gras and drunk anything from Chateau Margaux through Bollinger to Blue Nun.
Export markets are volatile – tastes change, economic conditions affect personal spending power and competition can drive prices to a point where there is little financial benefit to producers. A canny brand owner must be able to match brand strengths with potential consumers, balance production capability with demand and price their product competitively, all the while navigating the volatilities that influence demand.
In the current landscape, Germany, the 7th largest wine-producing nation, exports approximately 16% of wine produced annually with most of this consumed domestically. Their major trading partners are concentrated in Europe, North America and eastern Asia. The expectations of export vary from the promise of generating higher revenue, attracting wine consumers with higher disposable incomes, exploring new routes to premium markets or seeking high volume branded demand.
German producers have possibly not approached export markets in the best way so far. Continuous failed efforts to demystify German labels and styles, the engrained reputation for high volume semi-aromatic semi-sweet wine of no character or appealing image (known as Liebfraumilch) have played a key role. Also the fact that many producers are keeping their best efforts at home yet exporting some of the worst does not help matters. The director of the German Wine Institute recognizes that due to stiff international competition, producers will have to develop new markets more aggressively and innovatively in order to regain and maintain market share.
For brand owners whose aim is primarily an economic one, the ideal target markets should have balance of a large population, large disposable income and above average spending per capita on imported wine, with the USA being full of potential in particular. The USA is currently the most important German export market, importing 297,000 hectoliters of wine, worth EU 103 million (EU 2.8 per bottle), equivalent to about one third of all export earnings. It has a large population with high disposable income and the highest spend on alcohol (and tobacco) in 2011. Despite the USA producing over 18 million hectoliters of its own wine, consumers’ demand is so substantial that imports have increased by a whopping 170% in the last year. The growing trend towards more sophisticated and premium wines together with minimal discounting provides a perfect target for quality-conscious producers. The other end of the market also offers potential prospects as any innovative brand owner can profit from the latest US trend for Moscato, causing its sales to rise by 71% in the last two years.
Jan Matthias, owner of Weingut Staffelter Hof based in Mosel, producing organic premium wines, has successfully focused on the USA market. He explains that being able to offer modern labels, award-winning wines and a one thousand year history of winemaking provide a unique selling point and an important factor in consumers wine choice. Despite his total exports representing close to the national average of 15%, Jan is keen to expand his interest in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand but admits there is still a lot of work to be done.
Tapping into new markets in Australia is particularly tempting as many consumers are familiar with the variety. The increasing disposable income, forecasted stability of the Australian dollar and the third highest alcohol spending per head of any nation offers great potential. However, the country’s geographically remote cosmopolitan centers, loyal domestic consumption (one third of Australian wine production) and local abundance of low-priced wine will pose logistic and pricing challenges. Unsurprisingly, neighboring New Zealand wine continues to account for the largest share of total imports here. German wine imports are currently occupying 7th place and growing healthily, with Riesling being the most successful and the easiest to market.
The brand owners planning to introduce a new wine style or aiming to brave the heavily discounted game, should target the UK, a trendsetter market but with very challenging margins. While the USA market is full of potential and Australia promising a glimpse of new interest, the UK is showing an unsurprising decline in both value (by 14%) and volume (by 20%). Yet it is still the largest export market worldwide, worth EU 38 million. Timid marketing activity combined with the persisting confusion over German labeling (even by aficionados) and the focus on the heavily discounted lower-end of the market is fueling this decline. Despite the average price having risen by 8% over the last year, it is still disappointingly low at EU 1.3 per bottle and is a poor commercial proposition. The UK market is one of the most sophisticated yet challenging and competitive worldwide due to aggressive discounting driving sales. However the continuing consumers’ thirst for bargain opens up an opportunity for competitively priced high volume brands with generous marketing budgets. Naturally low alcohol Riesling production could tap into the evolving trend for lower alcohol wines. Alternatively, Pinot Noir or Dornfelder based Rosé could take advantage of its globally gaining demand (now presenting 10% of worldwide wine production). It is also a stepping-stone for any new products and an important market for setting wine trends.
On the opposite side of the market, if your brand offers scarcity, is high scoring and you are prepared to battle out logistical challenges and cultural etiquette then Japan and China is your bet. Just about every brand wine owner wants to do business with China. Its imports have increased by 19% over the last year, replacing Japan as the largest Asian market for German wines. Recent Wine Intelligence research predicts that China will be the most attractive Asian market for wine exports in the next 5 years. However, the challenges may overweigh the potential of this market for German producers. Even if you survived the bureaucratic issues, significant tax and logistical demands, the journey does not end there. To be able to understand the consumer behavior of 19 million wine drinkers may be the biggest challenge of them all with in-country presence being a necessity. Western consumer stereotypes just do not apply here. German brand owners may struggle to attract either adventurous connoisseurs (not brand seekers) or prestige-seeking traditionalists who account for 65% of all spending on imported wines according to Wine Intelligence’s Vinitrac survey in 2012. On top of that, German brand owners are, in most cases, white wine producers – a challenge given the Chinese love for robust red prestigious and status-driven wines.
Despite new emerging trends towards everyday affordable imports by younger and more experimental consumers within the Asian market, it seems unprofitable (in the near term at least) to market German wines to Asian consumers with low disposable incomes, low spend per head, a family oriented culture and with wine purchasing often as a gift rather than for personal consumption. The relatively obvious potential for Asian food matching with German Riesling is over-generalized as it is like saying that it matches well with European cuisine.
Many other markets may be worth exploration but brand owners must be aware of their challenges and suitability for their brands. Switzerland, with common language and cheap transportation. Norway with the highest spend per capita on alcohol and high brand awareness yet whopping alcohol tax (EU 6 per bottle). India with potential reach to 30 million new wine drinkers yet complex tax structure. Hong Kong with no duty on wine, optimum logistic capabilities and the highest average value per bottle (EU 6.8) but a tiny wine consumption (4.5 lt per capita). Singapore with demand for high volume brands yet limited market. Korea with its new drinking culture switching whisky for wine consumption and increasing wine sales at large-scale discount stores.
There is no one-answer-fits-all when it comes to recommending export markets to German brand owners. Despite the various markets being complicated, looking at basic statistical research on national disposable incomes, alcohol spend per head and value per bottle of imported wines in potential target markets, some initial conclusions can be drawn. In brief, the USA offers the richest picking, UK trend setting and Asia the potential for growing prestige brands.
As a beer lover I usually only make it to the bar – visiting several last weekend in Brussels – but today was different. James and Christine gave me a little tour of the Camden Town Brewery based underneath Kentish Town West station, only 5 minutes from my house.
Everyone is welcome to visit. In fact, every Thursday they run public tours from 6pm. There is also a Brewery Bar and Street Food Stands on Thu – Sat 12noon -11pm.
At first glance, brewing beer seems like a pretty straightforward process – all you need is water, cereal grains (barley, rye or oats), Humulus Lupulus and Saccharomyces Cerevisiea. However, a lot can go wrong to affect the final quality of the brew. But with beer you cannot just say ‘’It was a bad vintage” as you can with wine, we all expect 100% consistency. It is a tough job but the guys at CB do it so well and they produce 2.2 million pints every year.
And here is what you can try on tap now:
Hells Lager (4.6% abv) – clean and crisp golden Pilsner with aromas of aniseed and fennel, taste of fresh lemon and white pepper with hoppy finish
Pale Ale (4.0% abv) – rich aromas of meadow flowers, ripe grapefruit, honey and hints of caramel, classic mild bitterness and dryness on the palate with fresh lemon zesty finish
Jamie Oliver Pale (5.1% abv) – mild bitter Pale Ale with subtle aromas of honeydew melon, blossom and sweet nutty finish
Gentleman’s Wit (4.3% abv) – Wheat style, one sip can transport you to a café in the middle of Brussels, lemon meringue hazy colour with fluffy snowy cap, aromas of lemon curd, honey, sweet spice and creamy texture with hints of bergamot and orange peel
Ryeld (3.7% abv) – made from rye as the name suggests, pale amber colour with haze, aromas of cold tea brew with hints of sliced lemon but juicy fruity palate with toasted caramel and hoppy notes
Redlight Waltz (4.1% abv) – US hopped amber larger, bitter earthy spicy aromas with hints of dried lemon skin and fresh barley and limey finish
Fukdahator Doppelbock (6.7% abv) – Doppelbock to you and me as no one orders this beer by its full name, well not after a couple of pints anyway. My favourite for its Belgian style of richness and high alcohol. Dark Madeira amber colour, luscious aromas of mocha chocolate and roasted coffee with more fruit driven and nutty flavours on the palate and sweet spice, toasted walnuts and dried orange peel lingering finish
Ink (4.4% abv) – beautiful black liquid with creamy hat, it brings you joy just looking at it, aromas of roasted coffee and bitter dark chocolate with lively sharp palate yet smooth creamy texture resembling Guinness but with surprising hazelnut sweet and popcorn-like finish. Actually the popcorn notes could have something to do with the popcorn machine in the bar. Who knows?
Camden Town Brewery – 55-59 Wilkin Street Mews, NW5 3NN
I spend a lot of time attending wine tasting events. At least a couple of times a week if not more. Partly because I am an MW student but also because I like networking and learning about new wines. You know what really annoys me though about the some of the tastings? The majority are still suffering from so many old clichés. Too often the events are crowded and stuffy filled with an inescapable whiff of aftershave and packed full of joyless stiff suits. Still very much a macho male dominated world, miles away from the tranquil vineyards and spacious wineries where the wines are made.
Living in London, there is eclectic choice of tastings to attend. My international friends often remind me how we take this privilege for granted. Despite the tough UK economic climate, we are still lucky that many producers are willing to trade here and provide the great diversity of wines.
One of the attractions of tasting events is that you get to discover some iconic and diverse architecture. From the good old cricket and football grounds, exclusive hotels suites to aristocratic embassies, halls and even Naval Clubs. But it seems that however spacious the rooms are it always appears too crowded with not enough spittoons so you spend most of the time juggling mouthful of wine and eyeing the nearest spittoon while trying to hold the conversation. Way too many times I have been forced to swallow, sometimes I must admit, a voluntary and pleasant bonus (a phrase not to be taken out of context!).
For me tasting wines is an amusing, imaginary and sensory experience. Every glass has a story to say evoking memories or creating new thoughts. But too often the enchantment of colourful aromas and flavours are spoiled by pungent aftershave or perfume. My biggest nightmare is sipping a glass of gorgeous fragrant wine when suddenly all is spoiled by a stinky cloud of cigarette breath or masculine aftershave. I don’t get it. Why would anyone come to taste wines smelling like a freshly shampooed poodle. Ironically, men are worse offenders than ladies from my experience. I sometime wish I had a magic wand and could turn the worst offenders into a mouse or a pumpkin, or a spittoon for that matter.
Another unfortunate yet popular habit is for agent representatives to present the wines. To fly winemakers and viticulturists in for every event would be impossibly expensive. However, too often the agents are poorly informed about the wines and the lack of information alongside the endless amount of worthless bullshit is tiresome. If someone mentions that their wine is from a unique terroir once more I think I will explode. You rarely find a well-informed and engaging person that will go that extra mile to make the experience memorable. At the recent Bordeaux tasting I was surprised when one of the representatives picked up his mobile and called the winemaker to find the right answer to my question. Now this I call a dedication.
Being a woman I am naturally often encouraging more ladies to come to tastings. Despite the fact that we have been penetrating all aspects of the wine trade, men still dominate the tastings. Traditional tasting such as Port or Madeira are always very badly attended by women. You could count the number of woman on one hand that attended the latest Madeira Masterclass in London. I fear that this partly reflects the failure of the organisers to engage and attract a more diverse audience.
I wish we could somehow recreate the same feeling of tastings as if we were in the winery cellar itself. An inviting comfortable place where we can relax, communicate and savour the delicious flavours that wine offers. More smiles and less pretentiousness, more spittoons and less aftershave, and above all more imagination.
23rd October 2012
I love Madeira wine and only wish that I learnt to appreciate its unique taste and experience much earlier in my life. It is difficult to find the array of flavours that Madeira can offer in a single sip – its never ending finish and understated value for money – in any other fortified wine. So while your bottle is chilling in the fridge here is a bit more info you may want to get your teeth into…
Why is Madeira so unique?
The vineyards are located on one of the most inaccessible and remote mountainous islands in the Atlantic Ocean, 560km off the coast of Morocco. The terraced vineyards are built on volcanic fertile soils and are trained on 1-2 metre high pergolas that make the harvest a real back breaking job. The majority of the growers own small plots from 5 hectares to a couple of plants, similar to the Douro Valley. You could see a grower harvesting just a couple of baskets worth with tremendous pride. The steep vineyards make it impossible to use mechanisation so everything has to be done by hand.
The subtropical climate creates humid and foggy weather that does not allow for the grapes to ripen fully and provides an ideal atmosphere for mildew and grey rot. If this wasn’t enough the vineyards compete for existence with other more commercial agricultural products such as bananas. Only 500 hectares are planted under vines now but even with some new plantings of almost forgotten Bastardo, Madeira is very much a niche product.
The extremely limited production is further driven by the fact that only 15% of the total plantings is of traditional accredited varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia. The majority of wine is made of Tinta Negra Mole with small amounts of Terrantez, Bastardo, Moscatel and Complexa. The advantage of having so many varieties is that they can be vinified in many styles from dry to sweet*. The term dry could be possibly a bit confusing here as even the driest styles have at least 20 g/l of residual sugar.
But why I think Madeira is so unique is for its astonishing acidity and intense complexity that defines its style amongst other fortified wines, and other wines for that matter. A combination of factors achieves this unique character. High acidity is defined by volcanic soil, which is naturally acidic, and its fertility encouraging high yields. The foggy and misty climate makes it tricky to achieve full ripeness and the varieties used retain naturally high acidity. The complex distinctive flavours are the results of an extensive estufagem** or canteiro*** ageing. Due to this treatment, Madeiras can survive a couple of centuries. Once I tried 19th century Bastardo and the freshness yet intensity just blew me away.
What is the future for this great nectar?
Overall sales have dipped 20% in the last 5 years to 3 million litres in 2011 driven largely by a drop in demand from its biggest market – France. Luckily some new markets such as Japan and Belgium are showing more interest in Madeira. British drinkers represent a steady 10% of global consumption.
But if Madeira wants to become more popular it needs to make some big changes in its image and straighten out the confusion it creates with the bewildering number of styles available and its unimaginative labelling.
Many think that Madeira is a drink for the older generation. No wonder, as the majority of Madeira enthusiasts are over fifty or knowledgeable trade people. If you had a chance to join the latest Madeira tasting in London you would notice that 90% of the attendees were males of moustache age. Both woman and the under 40’s were in the minority.
The key is to get more and younger drinkers to try it and show them how to enjoy it. Whether it is through a glass offering in bars and restaurants or more informal and entertaining consumer tastings with the focus on demystifying Madeira. Price should not be a problem here as Madeiras are one of the best value wines in the world. Furthermore, once a bottle of Madeira is opened it can keep fresh up to one year.
There is really no excuse for any sommelier not to get behind quality Madeira. I wish more care was taken when selecting the fortified section of any wine list, often it seems to be just ‘ticking the box’ without any thought to what might excite customers. Also I believe that tastings would attract younger and more adventurous consumers if they were organised in more informal (even trendy) settings and focused on food matching and how to taste & appreciate Madeira.
There is a wealth of Madeira styles. In some ways that is its beauty, but it can also cause confusion and not only amongst consumers. For a start, all Madeiras are sweet, as the fermentation is stopped by fortification so none of the styles reach full dryness. Not only is the sweetness scale easily misrepresented but it is sometimes omitted from bottle labels altogether. This means that consumers are expected to know what level of sweetness each variety represents. And then there is the huge range to choose from – Frasqueira, Vintage, Colheita, 3/5/10/15/20/30/40 Years Old, Reserve, Old Reserve, Special Reserve, Solera and Rainwater****. At the moment, only four allowed varieties can appear on the label, with Tinta Negra joining the group next year. If Terrantez and Bastardo were to follow it would be a sign of a new era for Madeira, both reviving old traditions and at the same time making things easier for consumers to understand.
Let’s not cook with it but drink it and enjoy it
1. Vinho Barbeito Malmsey 20 Years Old – Barbeito is one of the smallest operations on the Island out of total of only 6 producers – fresh hazelnuts, milk chocolates, raisins (RS 120-130 g/l) www.vinhosbarbeito.com
2. Justino’s Madeira Colheita 1996 – blend of 95% Tinta Negra and 5% Complexa bottled in 2002 – tawny colour with golden rims, walnuts, dark chocolate, balsamic spices and orange marmalade (RS 80 g/l) www.justinosmadeira.com
3. Henriques & Henriques Verdelho 20 Years Old – H&H are the experts on Verdelho – very fruity style, bags of ripe and dried tropical fruits, milk chocolate, green tea with salty and nutty notes (RS 60 g/l) www.henriquesehenriques.pt
4. Blandy’s 20 Year Old Terrantez – golden colour with pink hue, grapefruit and smokiness on the nose, very gentle and delicate flavours and texture with bitter finish being the trademark of Terrantez (RS 80-90 g/l) www.madeirawinecompany.com
5. Pereira D’Oliveira Terrantez 1977 – bottled on 2011, this style is very unique where the barrels are not topped up and therefore the wine is exposed to more oxygen until bottling – an explosion of tropical fruit aromas, passion fruit, mango, pineapple, lychee with rich balsamic vinegar, toffee, caramel, chocolaty, nutty flavours – wow- more delicate on the palate yet lingers on the finish for ages
“If you like bottled electricity you will like Madeira” (Rui Falcao)
*Types of Madeira wine – Sercial = dry (RS 18-65 g/l), Verdelho = medium dry (RS 49-78 g/l), Boal – medium rich (RS 78-96 g/l), Malvasia = sweet (RS 96-135 g/l)
**Estufagem – the process of heating wine in either stainless steel or concrete tank for at least three months allowing hot water (45-55C) to circulate the container which is meant to duplicate the effect of a long sea voyage. For better quality wine, large wooden casks are used, placed in a heated room (a type of sauna) for six months to year.
***Canteiro ageing – oxidative ageing in casks for at least two years. The casks are placed on the top floor where the temperature (heat of the sun) is higher and the circulation of air causes wine evaporation.
Frasqueira (= Vintage) – made from a particular vintage from traditional noble varieties and aged for at least 20 years before bottling
Colheita – from single harvest, like a vintage, can be from single variety or blend and can be bottled only after 5 years of ageing
3/5/10/15/20/30/40 Years Old – made from a single variety but a blend of different vintages with designated age which is the indication of the youngest wine in that blend
Reserve (=Mature) – indicates wines with a minimum of 5 years ageing
Old/or Special Reserve (=Very Mature) – indicates wines with minimum of 10 years of ageing
Solera – a batch of wine aged through the solera system where only 10% of the existing batch is bottled at a time and no more than 10 additions are allowed, after which the wine may be bottled at once
Rainwater – a younger style of medium dry Madeira with golden colour. There are a couple of stories how this style got its name but you can be ensured that no rainwater is harmed during production.