Our writer on a jaunt to Verona

Our writer on a jaunt to VeronaErnie Whalley

A long-time discerning fan of wine, Ernie Whalley has amassed quite a collection of vessels from which to enjoy a glass or two. Who better, then, to recommend the essentials. 

I started drinking wine shortly before my sixteenth birthday, aka “a bloody long time ago”, encouraged by an eccentric aunt in whose hotel kitchen I was working as an unpaid skivvy. The first wine she plied me with was, she said, “Newits”, the second, sampled a day later “Morgan”. The tastings were permeated with questions, like “Did you like Newits* better than Morgan** and if so why?” In this random manner I learned to smell, sip, discriminate and express an opinion.

I can’t for the life of me remember what glasses we used in the restaurant other than a recollection of a big bowl-shaped vessel used for both red and white burgundy, regarded by my aunt as the king and queen of wines. Bordeaux, I dimly recall, was served in cut glass lead crystal goblets concerning which my aunt was always reminding the kitchen porter of the dire consequences that would ensue should he chip or drop one.

Glasses fit for purpose

By my mid-thirties I had acquired a respectable (for the time) selection of glasses, mainly the products of a company called Schott-Zwiesel (invariably pronounced ‘Scotch weasel’). By then the big bowls were for white wines only, whereas reds of all kinds were served in a taller, narrower vessel. By this stage I also owned some big on-trend champagne flutes; the traditional ‘coupes’, said to be modelled on the breast of Marie Antoinette were being parcelled and despatched to charity shops and church fetes.

These glasses did me fine until an Austrian glassblower named Riedel came into my ambit. These guys had done their homework and developed glasses that showcased the virtues of specific wines - Bordeaux, Burgundy, Riesling, New Zealand Sauvignon, Aussie Shiraz, Chianti Classico to Cal Cab, Riedel’s boffins laboured away, trialling and tweaking until they had a shape fit for purpose. Since then they have extended their expertise into other regions, with glasses tailored to Coke and Single-Malt whiskey, to name but two examples. Cunning Riedel also instituted a taste test for the purpose of convincing sommeliers and wine writers and, looking at my glass cabinets as I type, I have to say the ploy worked.

READ MORE:  So It Goes... Straight Outta Bordeaux

A divine addition

Lately, there’s a new (ish) kid on the block, also from Austria. Little is known about Kurt Zalto except that his ancestors were Venetian. And that he was smart enough, before he died, to enlist the help of one Father Hans Denk, a wine-obsessed priest to help design the glassware. Zalto’s Denk’ Art glasses are lead-free, handblown in a single piece. They look fragile but are, apparently, dishwasher safe. Their range is, it has to be said, nowhere as comprehensive as Riedel’s and their science, I’d say, nowhere near as precise, despite the priest looking to the physicists of ancient Rome and presumably to God for inspiration. But Zalto’s stemware, decanters and spittoons are now dead sexy.

Even this cynical old toper is clearing space on his shelves for a modicum of Zalto. From the range I have selected the Burgundy glass, said to be suitable for red or white, also Barolo, Barbaresco and chardonnay from other regions. Here, I’ll be honest. I have no idea whether or not Fr. Denk’s finest will outperform the Riedel equivalent. I just happen to think, shape wise and for balance and etherial delicacy, it’s the most aesthetically beautiful wine glass out there.

Zalto Denk’Art glasses from Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin and other good wine merchants price around €29-€33.

*Newits = Nuits St. Georges  ** Morgan = Morgon

Bellavista Alma Grand Cuvée

Bellavista Alma Grand Cuvée

A belle of a sparkling wine

Last week I spotted an old friend in my local wine merchants. Bellavista Alma Gran Cuvée is a sparkling wine from the Franciacorta zone of North-Western Italy. It’s made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the 190-hectare estate, described as “a natural amphitheatre” surrounding the state-of-the-art winery, which I was privileged to visit a few years ago. “Bellavista” means “beautiful view” and it is an apt description. The property was acquired in the early 1970s by construction magnate Vittorio Moretti. The initial vintage, 1979, was conceived simply to have something to drink with friends. However, meeting a young, talented winemaker called Mattia Vezzola a couple of years later proved a game-changer.

Together, Moretti and Vezzola transformed Bellavista into Italy’s leading producer of quality sparkling wine. It was evident when I was there that no corners were being cut; skill, care and time were lavished on the wines - the Grand Cuvée spends at least 40 months on the lees before dégorgement. Made by the 'traditional method', the different parcels of wine are all vinified separately. Fifteen percent of the wines used in the blend are fermented and then matured for seven months in small oak barrels. These wines are then blended with the "reserve wines", which come from between six and nine earlier vintages, the purpose being to ensure a consistent house style from year-to-year.  Once blended, the wine is bottled and the second fermentation takes place in bottle. It is then left to age on the lees for two and a half years before release.

Tasted, the wine has a busy, pizzicato-style mousse and a spring-flower and stone fruit bouquet. Solid and impactful to a degree I’d maybe not expect from a Chardonnay accented blend, there’s tiny twist of lime at the back end. Massively charming, I’d place the Alma Grand Cuvée in my top six fave sparkers under €70. It costs around €50 from Terroirs, Donnybrook; Green Man Wines, Terenure; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4,Searsons, Monkstown, Avoca stores and other good independents. Also, by the six-bottle case at Wineonline.ie.

Ernie Whalley

Ernie Whalley

Author: Ernie Whalley

Ernie Whalley, Restaurant Critic for The Sunday Times and former editor of Food & Wine Magazine, grew up working in his aunts’ hotel kitchens. He wrote on food, wine and travel in the UK before settling in Ireland in 1987. In the 1990s, he ran his own Dublin café before joining Food & Wine in 1999. In 2002, he launched www.forkncork.com, Ireland’s first food and drink website.

In a long career, Ernie has given cookery lessons as “One Man & his Hob”; written for innumerable publications worldwide and appeared on radio and TV food & drink programmes. Judging stints include The Cordon Bleu World Food and Drink Media Awards, the Bocuse d’Or and wine competitions in five countries. In 2018, he was inducted into the Food & Wine Magazine Hall of Fame.

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