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Cucumber wine, bring it on!

We all know plenty of foods with wine flavour. Winegums, to name but one, but what about sherry trifles, or port-marinated Stilton cheese? To find wine that tastes of food is a more challenging task. Or at least: it used to be. Because lately, and especially in summer, the shelves at the bottle shop are suddenly stacked with all sorts of fruity newcomers.

Sangria in a carton...

Sangria in a carton…

Now of course: flavor-infused wines are nothing new. The ancient Greeks already flavored wine with honey and herbs, and everyone who goes to Greece should at least try a Retsina, the resin-infused national wine that really only tastes nice on a Greek beach, but turns into cat pee once drunk back home. And of course there’s sangria from Spain, the notorious cocktail of cheap red wine, fruit and lemonade that is reponsible for so many holiday hangovers, not to mention teen pregnancies… Sangria has been on sale ready-made for decades, usually at the bottom of the wine section, in large bottles or convenient cartons. Cheap fruity summery plonk for the undiscerning palate, great for when you throw a garden party but don’t really like the guests well enough to spend money on it. I’m not saying Sangria is awful. In Spain I drink it all the time. But in Holland it just seems daft to drink the stuff. Our weather is never good enough for it, and really… it’s a childish sort of drink.

Years ago, I discovered a little known traditional infused wine in Belgian Luxembourg, where around the unpleasant town of Arlon every springtime ‘Maitrank’ is drunk. This ‘may-drink’ consists of a blend of the very uninteresting local wine with a wildflower called Gallium Odoratum, or woodruff in English. It adds a perfumed, honey-like flavour to the wine and especially the first sip is completely bewitching. It’s served over ice with a twirl of orange peel and drank as an aperitif. Hard to get outside the Ardennes/Luxembourg area but worth looking for if you’re ever in the area! I fondly remember Maitrank as one of the first alcoholic drinks (low alcoholic, okay) that I actually liked enough to get drunk on…

Maitrank should be more popular

Maitrank should be more popular

I guess because of those experiences I have never been against the idea of combining wine with other flavor-adding ingredients. I love wine, but I am not a vinofundamentalist! So I was thrilled to discover very grown up-looking infused wines in Australia a few years ago. No country in the world is more irreverent when it comes to wine, and therefore more innovative. Aussie winegrowers plant grapes from across the globe side by side, and have no qualms whatsoever blending Portuguese with Austrian grapes if that gets a result. Of course there are heroic failures, how else does one learn. But there are also lovely inventions. The way Australians blend verdelho with riesling for instance, or how they use viognier to add a kick to pinot grigio… wonderful.

Elderflower and lemon wine from Rosemount

Elderflower and lemon wine from Rosemount

But lo and behold, searching for a nice and refreshing wine during a Perth heatwave, I stumbled across a new range from Rosemount. White wines, infused with mint, green apple, lime and even cucumber! So bizarre, that I felt compelled to buy them. Well… let me tell you one thing: Australians do not do bad wine. If Rosemount thinks it’s good enough to sell, you can bet your backside it’s good enough to drink. And that cucumber infused sauvignon blanc… my, what a delicious little quaffer that was! Especially with oysters, absolutely terrific. To those who balk at the idea of cucumber-flavored wine… have a Pimms, and see how that tastes without cucumber in it. Nuff said.

Sadly, the cucumber wine is no loner available but Rosemount has launched new ‘botanicals’ with slightly more conservative additves like lemon and elderflower. Quite nice, but not as exciting as that greenish cucumbery one. Lately, the French have picked up on the wine-plus-fruit craze too. they already added lemonade to beer and call that Panache. A lovely refreshing summer drink that’s a third of the price of what Dutch brewers only launched last year under the German name ‘ Radler’. Wonders never cease. Anyway, in France we bought grapefruit-infused rosé and granny smith-flavored sauvignon blanc, that were delicious and perfectly drinkable with a picknick or a barbecue.

Grapefruit rosé

Grapefruit rosé

And what will the next trend be? I already discovered weird oddities like lavender-infused sauvignon (fabric softener?), and even weirder: marijuana wine. I predict it will not be very long until someone -probably in the Napa valley- invents a bacon-flavored shiraz. Hm. I don’t think I am adventurous enough for that.

Marijuana wine anyone?

Marijuana wine anyone?

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It started with Blue Nun…

Children as a rule don’t like alcohol. I know I didn’t: like everyone I too had one of those ‘funny’ uncles who thought nothing was more fun than tricking me into taking a sip from his beer, sherry, wine or whisky. Which always ended in the same result: I’d pull a face, start crying, and swore I would never ever touch alcohol in my life. And yet, here I am, almost 50 years old, surrounded by empty bottles and glasses… Well… no, not really. Although I do like a tipple every once in a while, I have never moved into fullblown alcoholism. Days, even weeks go by without any booze touching my lips. No problem. But just as easily I’ll drink two bottles of wine in one session…

So exactly how does an alcohol-hating child turn into a prolific drinker by the time he hits college? In my case, I started trying to drink with the usual suspects. Nemely: Lambrusco and Liebfraumilch. The latter is a sweet Riesling from Germany, always sold in screwtop bottles (long before that became fashionable and called ‘stelvin’) and generally well known in the English-speaking world as Blue Nun. And Lambrusco is of course the fruity fizzy low-alcoholic wine from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Actually quite a decent wine, but horribly mistreated and demonized as cheap plonk for sixteen-year olds. 175422

I am not ashamed to admit that it was during an Easter break in Rome with my school class, that I got drunk for the very first time, on Lambrusco. I remember we were playing bridge (I was a bit of a posh kid, I admit it) and tipping down beakers full of cheap supermarket Lambrusco while playing. Somehow, alcohol does not affect my thinking ability, so the bridge game went rather well. But when I got up to walk to my room, everything started spinning around me and my legs seemed to have minds of their own. I practically dragged myself up the stairs and into the room, where my room mate was standing with a big paper bag full of sausage rolls. His mom had bought forty sausage rolls, for him to hand out during the 24 hour train journey in a vain attempt to make her son a bit more popular with the class. But as things go, he had completely forgotten to hand them out… and a week locked in a suitcase hadn’t done them any good. ‘What do you think I should do with these?’ he asked me, while I was busy wondering why the floor wouldn’t stop moving. ‘Just give them to me’, I said, and I took the whole bag out onto the little balcony, and started tossing the sausage rolls out into the street, from five stories up.

Behind the Pensione was a chic discotheque, and a crowd was waiting to be let in. To their surprise, suddenly it started raining claggy pastry and rancid pork from the skies, but since there was a streetlight right over their heads, they could not see where the sausage rolls were coming from. As Italians do, they screamed and shouted and shook their fist at this dubious manna from the skies, while my roommate and I dispensed of all forty sausage rolls. After that I passed out. The next morning I was wondering if it had all been a dream, but one look out of the window told me otherwise. The street behind the Pensione was covered in flattened pastry and meat and all the cats of the neighbourhood were having a feast. From that moment on, suddenly I had a bad reputation.

A few years later, I was on vacation with my cousins, and we had decided to go to the Ardennes in Belgium and to Luxembourg. The Ardennes must be the most depressing place on earth: it literally always rains there and the people are among the unfriendliest you will ever meet. Small wonder we fled to the comfort of alcohol after a day or so, and so we discovered a little known local tipple called ‘Maitrank’. May-drink. A concotion of young -sour- white wine, with aromatic herbs added, most notably woodruff (Galium Odorata for you Latin-loving garden freaks). It was light, refresjing, with a perfumed honey-like aftertaste, and it was served in tumbler glasses with a slice of orange in it. Utterly delicious, nectar of the Gods! So we got quite, quite drunk on the stuff (resulting in a spectacular display of Esther William’s most iconic moments in the ornamental lake of the campsite) and even brought a few bottles home. feller

Not so long ago, I came across Maitrank again, traveling through Belgium. For nostalgia’s sake, I ordered a glass… It tasted like alcoholic cough mixture. Absolutely awful. Revisiting childhood memories is usually not such a great idea. Especially when it comes to booze.

Sour grapes at Brown Brothers

Amazing wines from across the globe, all in one place: Brown Brothers.

I thought I knew wineries, before I went to Australia. Dank caves and musty cellars in rural France, where even the air was 12 percent proof and where devious old ladies would pour you so much free tipple that you’d find yourself happily drunk and in possession of sixteen bottles of Chateau Whatever. A wine that seemed awfully delicious in Saint-Lunatique but that, at home, has lost all its charm and barely makes it into a stew. Or is only useful as a gift to people you don’t really like that much.
Don’t snigger: we’ve all done it! And most of us who have done wine tastings in Europe will recognize the experience. Although I must say that there are many, many wonderful and lovely winemakers with charming tasting rooms and great wines. But about them I will write another time.
Wine tasting in Europe is a very down-to-earth sort of thing, but then, in countries like France, Italy and Spain, wine isn’t seen as something to be snobbish about. I had heard horror stories from friends who had ‘done’ the Napa Valley in California though and found it to be impossibly snooty, overprices and really no fun at all.
So it was with a sense of trepidation that I entered the tasting room at Brown Brothers, in rural Victoria, a mere three hours north of Melbourne. Australian wine could for me, up until then, be summarized in one word: cheap. And quite frankly, I was quite sick and tired of the thick buttery Aussie Chardonnays from the supermarket. So, I was not really expecting much, yes I apologize for that.
Imagine my surprise when I was confronted with the massive, massive range of wines at Brown Brothers. It seemed as if every single grape that had been cultivated in Europe, had found its perfect new home in Australia. Grapes you did not find in one and the same province, let alone country, happily grew side by side. And -shock! horror!- were BLENDED into ungodly, unholy mixtures!
I just could not get my head around it. Who would blend a noble Riesling from Germany with the zesty Verdelho from Portugal? What crazy mind stirred Viognier in with Gewurztraminer?
Of course, the proof of the pudding was in the eating, and I took my first sip… And another… and another…
Long story short, it wasn’t even 10:30 am and I was happily tipsy already. I chatted with the lady behind the counter, who kept on pouring me delicious wine after heavenly nectar, and apparently I came across as this savvy bigshot European wine connaisseur. Which I really am not, I just happen to know what I like and what grape to expect it from, that’s more than enough oenology for me!
So, I got invited for a special occasion: they were about to uncork the first batch of their brand new Nebbiolo range. Yes, Nebbiolo, the noble grape that creates the black and seductive Barolo wine. Another emigrant that thrived in the Victorian climate.
And now you expect another euphoric paragraph about how wonderful that Nebbiolo was. Well… it was awful. Like licquorice drenched with vinegar, it was sour and astringent and just yukky. Which winedrinkers know of course: a young Nebbiolo is just undrinkable, it takes ten years or more to become rich and velvety and delicious.
So I left Brown Brothers, head spinning with new knowledge and certainly the equivalent of a bottle of wine in tastings… with a bag full of desert wine and a nasty taste in my mouth from that very young Nebbiolo. And that was 12 years ago… and I am just kicking myself that I did not buy some Brown Brothers Nebbiolo back then. Because right now, it would have been absolutely gorgeous.

Korean courage and karaoke

Almost every self-respecting country in the world produces at least one type of ‘national drink’. Though more often than not these drinks are really nothing but some awful commercial concoction with a vaguely touristy label. If the locals don’t drink the stuff themselves, it’s NOT a national drink, sorry.

On the other hand, if a drink is really ONLY drunk by locals and shunned by the tourists, and as good as unavailable in the rest of the world, then you really have found a national tipple. One such famous drinks is the notorious Makgeolli from South Korea. They probably have it in North Korea as well, but I wasn’t fortunate -or interested- enough to travel in that forbidden country.

In 1995 I was given the opportunity to travel to South Korea, as a guest of Hyundai who were launching a new car. And on the first evening I was one of the jetlagged guests at a giant banquet in the gardens of the sumptuous Cheju Shilla resort on Jeju Island, Korea’s version of Hawaii. There, I was surprised to receive a welcome drink of murky slop from a gourd. It looked like watery milk with a slightly cream-coloured tinge, and it gave off a fresh yeasty scent. I remembered that scent all too well from tapé, the fermented and slightly alcoholic rice desert my Chinese-Javanese grandma used to make, and that kept us nice and quiet as children. So I did not hesitate to have a drink. I also did not want to offend our Korean hosts like some of my less civilized Dutch colleagues did. I will never cease to cringe at the Dutch inability to travel without trampling toes, but that is another topic that shall be dealt with another time.

The fermented rice-wine Makgeolli should be served with a gourd.

The taste was pleasantly refreshing, slightly sour and not too alcoholic, or at least so it seemed. There was a definite hint of sake, the more famous and commercial rice wine from Japan. I liked this ‘mokkalie’ as we called it. Korean is a notoriously hard language to transcribe and unlike the Chinese who standardized matters by forcing the Pinyin transcription rules onto the entire world (hence Canton became Guangzhou), you can basically spell Korean any way you fancy. Makgeolli seems to be the common English form though. Whatever.

Unlike most colleagues, who after a first polite taste (or rude refusal) switched to their boring imported European lager, I decided to stick with Makgeolli for the rest of the evening. I actually really grew to like the drink, more and more, and that made a very favorable impression on the Korean hosts with whom I shared a table. Was it Korean courage, that prompted me to grab the karaoke microphone a little later, and warble ‘Careless whisper’? I have no idea, I do remember scornful looks from the lager-drinking Dutch and even more so from the Germans who were terribly shy. Then, the opening bars of ‘La Bamba’ started, and there was no way I was going to leave the stage. Instead, a Korean gentleman from our table jumped on the stage beside me, and together we duetted what must have been the worst version of La Bamba ever. The other Koreans present went ballistic over our performance and afterwards my Korean duet partner and I hugged and abandoned the stage to make room for a large crowd that insisted on singing ‘We are the world’.

Five days later things were very, very different. The colossal headache I woke up with after the Makgeolli-fueled karaoke-spectacle had left me after a day, the embarrasment was still very much alive, and my Dutch colleagues made little effort to hide their disdain. We were visiting the Hyundai headquarters that day and were all in our suits and ties. One colleague was boasting that he was going to interview the second-in-command at Hyundai, who in a hierarchical society like the Korean one was something like the left hand of God.

Things turned out very, very different indeed.

When we greeted the Hyundai high-and-mighty, politely bowing and handing over our calling cards with both hands, as we had been taught, I was scrutinized by a middle-aged Korean man with titanium glasses and an expensive suit. ‘You have a very nice voice’, he said, out of the blue. I was confused and looked at the vice-president of Hyundai… and suddenly recognized my duetting partner from he karaoke night! Let me just end this long story by saying that I ended up getting that exclusive interview, and my arrogant colleague who had felt too good for Korean booze and karaoke, was politely sent packing.

See? When in Rome -or Seoul- drink as the Romans do. And sing like a bird!