Ungrafted Vines: History revisited

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Palacio do Fefinanes 100 year old vinesIn the 4 years since the first Bristol Wine Blog, I’ve written about many subjects, some popular, others less so. But one theme regularly features high on the list of readers’ searches: ‘Ungrafted Vines’. And even though my last blog on the subject was well over a year ago, several people every week still look for it. Clearly it’s time to revisit the topic.

Firstly, what do we mean by an ‘ungrafted’ vine? It’s a vine where the whole plant – including the roots – is a single entity. You might think that all vines are like that, but, actually, the vines used for most of the wines we drink today are not. We need to look back over 150 years for the reason why.

In the 1860s, phylloxera hit Europe’s vineyards. It’s a microscopic bug that attacks vine roots and eventually kills the vine. It originated in America and was first seen in Europe in southern France but quickly spread throughout the continent and beyond. At one time, it seemed that the entire wine industry might be wiped out. And even when the cause of the problem was identified, it took years before a remedy was found. Eventually, it became apparent that most American vines were resistant to attack, only the European vine, which is genetically different, is vulnerable.

So, problem solved: plant American vines! Unfortunately not! Sadly, American vines don’t, in general, produce good wine. In fact, all the great wines of the world are made from grapes from European vines (which include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and many more) and nothing could stop the phylloxera bug from munching its way through their roots. Finally, someone had the idea of attaching a European vine to the roots of an American vine. The roots would be immune to attack and you would still have the Chardonnay or Merlot or whatever grapes that you wanted.

And it works! So, today, virtually all vines are attached (‘grafted’ is the technical word) to American vine roots. ‘Ungrafted’ vines – those that are still being grown on their own roots – are quite unusual. There are a few places in the world where you’ll still find them; most are either so remote from other vineyards that the bug has never spread there or the soil is very sandy (which the bug doesn’t like). Parts of Chile, Portugal, Malta and Cyprus are among the places you’ll find vines that are a single entity from tip to root, but everywhere else, grafted vines are the only way to produce the wines we want.

So, do wines from ungrafted vines taste differently from those from grafted vines? It’s hard to say, but it’s fascinating when you find one – it’s like tasting a piece of history.

Pork and Gewurztraminer?

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Alsace Gewurz Turckheim“Would go well with a dry Gewurztraminer” read the note at the foot of the recipe*. “You must be joking!” was my instant thought. The dish was pork cooked in a sauce comprising red and yellow peppers, tomatoes and fennel seeds – typically Mediterranean to my mind and I’d have chosen a wine to reflect that: probably a dry Provence rosé. But no, the recipe was quite clear and insistent: “pork suits a super-aromatic Gewurztraminer very well indeed and you need a wine with good flavour intensity and fruit richness to match the strong flavours of the peppers and fennel seeds”.

The idea intrigued me. I put aside my doubts and decided to go along with the recommendation. We didn’t have the New Zealand Gewurztraminer mentioned on our wine shelf (nor, for once, anything else similar from there), but a wine from the same grape variety made by the excellent Cave de Turckheim cooperative in Alsace would, I felt, prove an able substitute (available widely from supermarkets and wine merchants, around £10). Just a shade off-dry but with a lovely fragrant nose that always reminds me of old English roses and a real intensity of flavour, this is a wine I’d often choose to pair with mildly spicy Indian or Chinese dishes. But how would it go with the pork?

The tropical fruit flavours in the wine certainly harmonised with the aniseed-like character of the fennel which was a key flavour in the sauce, but that same fruity character gave a decidedly cool taste in the mouth, the very opposite to the delicious, but sweetly warming dish. Sometimes, (for example, some curries), this type of contrast goes well, but here, it didn’t really work for me (although my wife disagreed and thoroughly enjoyed the food and wine match showing, once again, how food and wine matching is a very personal thing).

But, like this pairing or not, I’m pleased I followed the advice of the recipe and it certainly won’t put me off trying another unusual mix in future. If a combination of flavours isn’t right for you, then simply recork the bottle and leave it for the next day. Just remain open-minded – you never know if you’re about to find a ‘Wow’ match that will make you wonder why you hadn’t tried it before.

*The recipe is from “Vineyards of New Zealand Cookbook” by Julie Le Clerc and Vic Williams published by Viking Books (but possibly out of print now).

The Price of Wine

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Tesco Wine Fair 4The price of wine has gone up. Now there’s a surprise! Over time, the price of most things tends to rise and wine is, perhaps, more sensitive in this regard than many products. It depends greatly on the weather: not enough sun or too much rain at the wrong time means a poor harvest and prices go up. But, more than that, governments everywhere see alcohol as an easy target when they need to increase the tax take. So, the price of wine is doubly certain to rise. But by how much?

Recently, I was preparing a course I will be running and, ever eager to save myself work, I looked back at the last time I ran a similar programme. There, among the notes, was, not just a list of wines I had used, but also the prices I had paid for them in 2010. I couldn’t resist making a comparison with prices today. Not all the wines were still available, but many were and I quite easily found like-for-like replacements for those that were missing.

Just 3 of the 30 wines hadn’t risen in price at all, but, at the other end of the scale, 7 had gone up by more than a quarter, including one (a Californian Zinfandel) by more than 40%. The average rise was 15%, well above the rate of inflation here over the same period.

So what looks good value now compared to 4 years ago? I might have guessed that, as these were mainly low- to medium-priced supermarket wines, fashion might have had an effect on price. This was partly true – a couple of Pinot Grigios had risen steeply, a clear sign of the continuing popularity of that grape – but generally it was much less predictable. One New World Chardonnay was up 10%, another more than 30%. The price of an everyday Chianti hadn’t risen at all, whereas a similar quality Rioja was up by a third. So, no real pattern; my only tip would be to look for wines you like that seem good value to you.

Finally, back to that wine course I’m planning. It (and several others) will be at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge centre. Brochures giving full details are available now in local libraries or on line at http://www.bristolcourses.com. You can book on the website, too. And, for those of you on Facebook, I’ll put more information on facebook.com/winetalksandtastings in the coming weeks.

Summer Wines: Loire & Beaujolais

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French Rose trioA tasting of wines from the Loire and Beaujolais: my first thought was that the 2 regions had very little in common (apart from both being in France), but, the venue was a few minutes’ walk away from my home, so why not go? And I’m pleased I did; having tasted my way round an excellent selection from The Wine Society, I changed my mind about the regions having very little in common. In one tasting note after another, I wrote “summer”, “picnic”, “drink in the garden”. These are great wines for this time of the year: easy to drink with light summer food or on their own and definitely best when chilled. And, yes, this includes many of the Beaujolais – delicious after half an hour in the fridge.

But the other thing that struck me was the variety of the wines, particularly from the Loire – dry- and off-dry whites, rosés and reds, plus the odd bottle of sparkling – oh, and a fantastic sweet wine from Vouvray (£29), too. And, despite all the Beaujolais on taste being red – many are surprised to find that there is a little white Beaujolais made and an even tinier quantity of rosé – and from a single grape variety (Gamay) there was a world of difference between the delicate, cherry flavoured Chiroubles (£9.50) and a rich and concentrated 8 year old Moulin-à-Vent (£21.50).

I blogged about the improvement in Muscadet a while back and this was confirmed by a pair of examples from the same estate, Château L’Oiselinière, but with a few years ageing between them. The 2012 (£7.95) was lovely and fresh with attractive pink grapefruit flavours, whereas the 2005 (a bargain at £11.95) was altogether deeper, richer and more complex. But who would have thought of cellaring Muscadet for almost 9 years?

It’s difficult to talk about Loire wines without mentioning their rosés, which, to be polite, have had a mixed reputation over the years. Not here! The 3 examples I tasted were all delicious, but in very different styles: the unusual Reuilly rosé, made from Pinot Gris, was really elegant and creamy, the Sancerre rosé (£13.95) full of strawberry fruit flavours and the Gamay-based Saint-Verny (£8.50) was beautifully dry and fresh (even if this last wine stretches the Loire region a little!).

A thoroughly enjoyable tasting and one that highlighted so many wines that are just perfect for this time of year. All are available from The Wine Society – look online or in their latest list.

A Taste of the Languedoc

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Saint ChinianThe south of France is often a source of attractive, flavoursome wines at great value prices. The Languedoc region in particular, with its wonderful Mediterranean climate, is ideal for ripening the grape varieties traditionally grown in the area. Combine this with passionate and skilled winemaking and you have a winning combination. There’s just one problem for many wine lovers: the majority of the wines here are not named by grape variety, but after the place they come from, using the ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ (AC) system. So, instead of Shiraz, Grenache and the like, we have Fitou, Corbières, Minervois and many, many more.

But, when you taste these various Languedoc reds, you often find there’s more variation within the individual ACs than between them. This isn’t surprising; most of them are based around 5 main grape varieties: Syrah (the French name for Shiraz), Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Mourvèdre. One producer might use a bit more Syrah, another a bit more Grenache, yet a third might only use one or two of the 5 or throw in a touch of some local rarity. But the characteristics of each grape are unique to that variety, so, from different combinations, you get very different results: the soft roundness of the Grenache, the spicy, pepperiness of the Syrah, the intense black fruits of the Mourvèdre.

But, confusing as this may seem, it is worth experimenting as there are some gems to be found. Take, for example, Terres Falmet’s Livresse des Cimes from another of the Languedoc ACs, Saint-Chinian (Vine Trail, about £11). A blend of 40% Mourvèdre, with 30% each of Syrah and Grenache, this has a really dark, intense colour and a lovely full nose of black fruits and coffee. To taste, you get the same black fruits with spicy, peppery hints and excellent length. There’s quite a bit of tannin there, so the wine would keep, but it’s also delicious now, especially with food – steak or venison spring to mind, although, surprisingly, also with bitter chocolate! (Amazing what you discover if you keep a little drop in your glass until the end of a meal).

Vine Trail (www.vinetrail.co.uk) specialise in this sort of wine – look for their Minervois or Faugères, too – but you can also find good examples in the larger supermarkets. Do try them – they can be delicious and they’re often great value, too.

Wine for 4th of July – or not!

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US wines TescoIt’s the 4th of July, the day when Americans everywhere celebrate and, no doubt, many of those based on this side of the pond have been looking around our shops for a suitable bottle to open. But, if they walked into any of our major supermarkets, they might be rather disappointed.

Take Tesco, for example. There are some 40 US wines in their latest wine list, but, look more closely and there’s little real choice: just several variants of all the popular grape varieties – 6 Chardonnays, 5 Pinot Grigios, 5 Merlots, 5 Zinfandels and so on, plus a few anonymous blends. And very little beyond the well-known commercial brands: Gallo along with Turning Leaf and Barefoot, Echo Falls and Blossom Hill – and that’s it. Yes, these wines sell very well, so earn their place on the shelf, but where are the wines for those of us that are looking for something to really delight us? In the Italian section or the French section, the supermarkets manage to find space for just a few wines for real wine lovers, but from the USA? Nothing! Well, almost nothing: Ravenswood’s Zinfandel (£9.99) is very drinkable.

It’s the same with the other supermarkets (although Waitrose’s on-line offering is a bit more interesting). Even the Wine Society, with its vast and usually very comprehensive range spanning more than 100 catalogue pages, only manages a single page of US reds and a half page of whites. And that from the country that is the world’s 4th largest wine producer and 2nd, behind Australia, on the UK wine import charts. The story’s repeated in the influential Decanter Wine Awards, too: dozens of US medal winners, but check one after another and you find ‘not available in the UK’.

So, what is going on? From a quick glance, it would be easy to say that all American wine is simple, formulaic and off-dry to medium-sweet but that’s far from the truth: USA makes some great wines. I’ve read about them and the Decanter Awards confirm it. I’ve even tasted some on occasions, but they just don’t seem to be reaching the UK in any numbers. Leaving aside the boutique wines that are made in tiny quantities with prices in the stratosphere, I can’t believe we can’t find something a bit special for, say, £10, £15 or even £20. Or is anything good at this sort of price snapped up locally?

I’d really like to know and, better still, see a proper selection of them on our shelves so that I can join the celebration, too, next 4th of July.

Wine: A Force for Good

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GWW TastingThere’s been an intense focus in the media recently on the negative side of alcohol – the potential damage to health, anti-social drunken behaviour, ‘binge’ drinking, drink-driving, etc, etc. But, whatever happened to balanced reporting? The other side of the picture seems to have been completely forgotten. So, let me say it loud and clear: alcohol, and (given the main interest of this Blog), wine in particular, can have a positive side, too.

I’ve lost count of the number of wonderful, relaxing, leisurely evenings we’ve spent around the dinner table with friends over a couple of bottles of wine, chatting happily and solving the world’s problems (even if no-one listens!). We haven’t drunk to excess or been unruly and we’ve walked or taken a bus or taxi home. But this isn’t news. And neither is an event that my wife and I attended recently.

Bath’s Great Western Wine used their Summer Tasting at the elegant Holburne Museum to raise funds for Dorothy House Hospice Care, a charity dedicated to caring for people with terminal illnesses. The ticket price and a proportion of the value of wine sales on the night were all donated. Around a hundred people attended, we enjoyed some interesting wines from around the world in pleasant and harmonious surroundings and the evening made some money for a worthy cause. For me, that’s a win/win situation. And this isn’t an isolated example of wine being a force for good. I’ve attended or been involved in a number of similar events supporting various charities. Offer people a little incentive so that they enjoy themselves with some wine to taste and they can be very generous. And why not? Should be condemn that use of alcohol, too?

And when you consider that at least £2.60 from each and every bottle of wine we open goes to the government in taxation to provide services for us, isn’t it about time a more balanced picture was painted?