Is it a Cheese? Is it a Wine?

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We drank a wine recently made from Pecorino.  And before you ask how you make wine from an Italian sheep’s milk cheese, I should explain that Pecorino is also a grape variety!  Both names derive from the Italian for a sheep, pecora, but there the connection between the cheese and the wine ends – unless, of course, you’re thinking of having an Italian wine and cheese party!

The grape is believed to be quite ancient and there are a couple of theories about its name: one is that the bunches on the vine are a very distinctive inverse triangle shape, rather like a sheep’s head; the other is that the sheep would often eat the grapes while grazing in the vineyard!  Who knows which is right, but the grape – little known outside its native regions of Marche and Abruzzo in eastern Italy – is capable of producing some really delicious white wines.

PecorinoUmani Ronchi’s Vellodoro Pecorino (Great Western Wine, £11.50), from the Terre di Chieti close to the town of Pescara in Abruzzo, is a delight: rich and mouth-filling.  Not overtly fruity – many good Italian whites aren’t – but quite spicy and full-flavoured with plenty of character and bite.  You could drink it on its own as an aperitif, but I think it’s far better with food and will even stand up to quite strongly flavoured dishes – tomato-based sauces, for example.  And, as for drinking it with a tasty sheep’s cheese – why not?

Not long ago, the variety was in danger of disappearing as other, more commercial, grapes were preferred in the area but fortunately, a rescue is in hand and Pecorino is beginning to be re-established.  This is great news! We mustn’t lose distinctive local varieties like this capable of making really attractive and drinkable wines at affordable prices.

Beaujolais Nouveau is here!

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“Beaujolais Nouveau is here!” You’ll be seeing that message in many wine shops and supermarkets from today (Thursday 20 November). But what is Beaujolais Nouveau and should you buy some?

Beaujolais Nouveau (new Beaujolais) is made from 100% Gamay grapes grown during the current year which have been harvested, fermented and bottled during the last frantic 6 weeks. It’s a process that usually takes several months (longer if you include wines from some parts of the world that can remain in barrel for years before bottling), but which the producers of Beaujolais have accelerated so that the wines can be on the shelves each year on the designated release day, the 3rd Thursday of November.

It’s a tradition that dates back to the 19th century when many people from the Beaujolais region moved to work in nearby Lyon and, each year, the newly made wine would be brought to the town by friends and relatives for a reunion. Fast forward to the 1960s and the bistros of Paris took an interest in these young, refreshing wines and competition developed to get the new wines to the capital first. This became a formal race in 1974 with the destination London, not Paris and soon races to the USA, Australia and Japan became regular events.

Although the race phenomenon has died down a little, about a half of all Beaujolais produced is still sold as ‘Nouveau’. Which brings us back to the question: should you buy some? If you’ve never tasted it, then do try a bottle. But a friend of mine once described it not very flatteringly as ‘alcoholic blackcurrant juice’ and, for me, the rush to get it from the vine to the shelves means that the wine has no time to develop any complexity; it can only ever be a simple, fruity wine (nothing wrong with that!) – perhaps more suited to being lightly chilled for summer drinking than for this time of year.

Fleurie cooperativeBut don’t forget, there is much more to Beaujolais than Nouveau. Wines labelled ‘Beaujolais Villages’ and some of the individual villages (or ‘cru’) such as Fleurie (the picture shows the grapes arriving at the winery), Julienas and Morgon make delicious food-friendly wines that are definitely worth seeking out. And not too expensive either; expect to pay around £10 – £12 for a really good example.

And, if you’re thinking of a red to go with your Christmas turkey, then a good cru Beaujolais is well worth considering.

Argentinian wine: a mystery

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Argentina is the world’s 5th largest wine producer, yet their UK sales are dwarfed by those of their far smaller neighbour, Chile, and even by New Zealand. In fact, only a little over 1 bottle in a hundred we buy here comes from Argentina. Admittedly, for many years, local demand meant there was little left for export and then political issues meant that anything from that country was a hard sell in the UK, but their continuing lowly showing is a mystery, particularly in view of the quality and excellent value of many of their wines. And a recent tasting by Cupari wines for the Bristol Tasting Circle simply reinforced my view.

Argentina is best known for its reds, but the attractively restrained Mairena Sauvignon Blanc (£10.95) and a pair of interesting but contrasting wines from the Torrontes grape, a local speciality, (both £11.45) showed that dedicated producers with vineyards in the right place can produce very drinkable whites, too.

Place is important in Argentina; much of the country is far too hot for quality wines, so the prime vineyard sites are in the foothills of the Andes Mountains where temperatures are much cooler due to the altitude. But the cooler temperatures not only suit the whites – grapes for the reds are grown there, too. Malbec (a native of Cahors in SW France) is the signature variety with Bonarda (an interesting grape of much disputed origin) an important supporting player alongside the ‘usual suspects’, the Cabernets and Syrah.

Quieto Argentinian blendWe tasted a selection of inky-black, chewy Malbecs including one from Cupari’s own vineyard (£12.95) and the equally dark coloured Mairena Bonarda (£12.95), with its appealing dried fruit flavours. But, for me, the star of the evening (ahead of a couple of pricey Malbecs, was Monte Quieto’s Quieto (£17.95). A blend of Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon, Malbec and Syrah from vineyards in different parts of Mendoza, this had lovely black fruits and liquorice on the nose followed by succulent cherry and spice on the palate. Really delicious and an ideal accompaniment to the sort of red meat dishes the Argentinians do so well.

So why are Argentinian wines not more popular in the UK? I just don’t know.

For more information or to buy any of the wines mentioned, go to Cupari’s website: http://www.cupariwines.co.uk.

A Spicy Problem

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Ribera del DueroLamb Tagine for dinner – delicious! But choosing a wine to go with it is not so easy.

There must be hundreds of recipes for a tagine, a North African dish named after the cooking pot in which it was traditionally made, but the one we were using cooked the lamb slowly in a rich sauce flavoured with fresh ginger, cumin, a hint of chilli, cinnamon and prunes, so some definite spiciness for the wine to cope with, but also plenty of sweetness.

Both the spiciness and the sweetness would make a wine taste more bitter, less fruity and drier and I find that even gentle chilli heat (as in our dish) tends to exaggerate any tannin – an important consideration as the lamb certainly demanded to be paired with red wine. I ignored any bottles from Italy; these often have a pleasant touch of bitterness that works well with the right dish – but not with a tagine! – and thick-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (Shiraz) can be quite tannic and so could also be quickly ruled out.

A Chilean Merlot with its typical sweet fruit was my first choice, but – and how often does this happen? – we’d opened our last bottle just the week before. But, where Merlot works, the Spanish variety Tempranillo is often just as good and a Ribera del Duero, Pago de los Capellanes (Great Western Wine, £14.95) was a fine substitute. Quite soft with attractive red fruits and subtle vanilla traces from brief barrel ageing, this wine had more than enough weight and richness to match our tagine even with its fairly robust flavours.

So, although not the easiest dish to match with wine, thinking about the flavours in the food and the character of the wine resulted in opening a bottle that worked well with the meal and – most importantly of all – was really enjoyable to drink.

Bubbles off the Beaten Track

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Tesco Wine Fair 2014From the picture, you might think it was a good party! In fact, it was taken at the Tesco Wine Fair in Bristol recently where more than 40 producers were represented and some 300 wines were open for tasting. Of course, only the foolhardy (of whom there were a few!) would attempt to taste everything, but, for the selective, there really was something for everyone.

As a Wine Educator, I was on the Wine and Spirit Education Trust stand – just about the only stand which wasn’t offering anything to taste. But we had plenty of visitors, nevertheless, attracted by our ‘Aroma roulette’ game: spin the wheel and where the ball lands equates to a bottle containing an aroma you might find in wine – lemon, vanilla, honey and many more – identify the smell and you win a prize. A few succeeded brilliantly; many more struggled, but all seemed to enjoy a fascinating challenge.

Apart from the chance to walk around and taste, there was also a series of very popular workshops throughout the 2 days of the event at which experts ran themed tutored tastings. “Bubbles off the Beaten Track” was my theme, featuring 3 alternative sparkling wines. We started with Tesco’s Finest Pignoletto (£8.99), a refreshing, lemony fizz from north-east Italy that would certainly appeal to Prosecco lovers. Tesco’s Finest Cava (£6.99) followed which was, I must say, rather bland and undistinguished by comparison; perhaps understandable at the price, but Cava can be so good now, I would have preferred to offer a better example. Disappointment was quickly forgotten, however, as our final wine was poured: Tesco’s Finest Blanquette de Limoux (£8.49). A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and the local grape, Mauzac, from near Carcassonne in the south of France, this was the richest and creamiest of our 3 alternative sparklers and great value, too.

It was good to see many at the Fair pacing themselves and sensibly limiting the number of wines they tasted. Others, very obviously, did not and will, no doubt, have woken up with very sore heads the morning after!

France regains top spot

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France v ItalyFrance against Italy – it’s an annual battle: who is going to be the world’s largest wine producer? In 2011, France won. In 2012 and 2013, it was Italy. Now the figures are out for 2014 and, according to the early estimates, France will take back the top spot producing just over 6 billion (6,000,000,000) bottles, around 17% of the world’s total, a figure expected to be some 240 million bottles ahead of Italy’ output. Spain, as ever, came in 3rd and these 3 countries between them make almost half the world’s wine each year.

2014 has been a topsy-turvy year for European growers. Back in the summer, news that hailstorms had caused serious damage to vines in Burgundy and the Languedoc made me think that Italy might make it 3 wins in a row. But, when we were in Chianti in September, it was clear that the result would be very different. Every grower we spoke to was complaining about the terrible, wet, cool summer they had had and how their grapes just weren’t ripening well enough. And the same poor conditions prevailed right across south-eastern Europe with Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia all suffering – whereas, further north, Germany is celebrating a bumper harvest.

Things were better, on the whole, for the New World countries; USA (4th largest producer), Argentina (5th), Australia (6th) and South Africa (8th) all reported generally good harvests, although in Chile, the Sauvignon Blanc crop, in particular, was badly affected by spring frosts, and their production is well down on previous years. This may prove good news for another major New World Sauvignon Blanc producer, New Zealand, currently 13th, but rapidly rising towards ‘top 10’ status.

So, those are the numbers, how about the quality? It’s really too early to say. A few 2014 wines from the southern hemisphere are beginning to reach our shores and the new Beaujolais will be released in 3 weeks’ time, but we’ll need to wait a little longer to see if 2014 be a year to remember. But, like wine lovers everywhere, hope and anticipation is part of the pleasure.

Bristol’s Ongoing Oporto Link

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Bristol Oporto tasting AverysFor centuries, shipments of wine, port, sherry and brandy from Europe were landed on the quayside at Bristol before being taken to one of the many wine merchants (35 were listed in a local trade directory in the 1840s) dotted around the city. The commercial docks are no more, transformed now into a lively riverside area, but the historic links are retained as Bristol is twinned with 2 major wine exporting cities: Bordeaux and Oporto.

And it was entirely appropriate that, when the Oporto twinning association decided to run a wine tasting as one of its regular events, it should choose Averys’ cellars as the location – Averys now being the sole survivor of those 35 merchants still trading in Bristol, following the regrettable closure of Harveys’ base in the city more than a decade ago.

The tasting featured an interesting selection of 3 whites, 3 reds and 2 ports, the wines proving, yet again, how far Portugal has come in terms of wine quality. It was also good to see that the producers are persevering with many of Portugal’s high quality native grape varieties, rather than bowing to the temptation to use better-known varieties that may, initially, be more commercial.

Of the whites we tasted, the opening wine, Portuga Branco (£6.99) made a pleasant, easy-drinking and great value aperitif but, for me, the pick was the Vinho Verde, Howards Folly Alvarinho (£10.99). This, made from the same popular and fashionable grape variety known as Alboriño in Spain, had depth, richness and complexity and would make a perfect accompaniment to a fish dish in a creamy sauce.

Portugal is better known for its reds and the Socalco Tinto (£7.49) from the Douro was a lovely flavoursome mouthful, full of attractive soft red fruits; very drinkable and a bargain at the price.

Perhaps not surprisingly, though, the stars of the evening were a pair of ports. Averys own label 10 year old Tawny (£14.99 for 50cl), from Taylor’s vineyards, had all the delightful mellowness of long ageing in barrel and contrasted well with the more tannic, black fruits and pepper character of Smith Woodhouse’s 1997 Vintage Port (£36) which, although drinking nicely now, clearly will benefit from a few more years in the bottle.

If you would like to join the Bristol-Oporto Association and enjoy interesting and sociable evenings such as this, please leave your name and contact details in the comments section of this blog and I will pass them on to the Secretary.