The Highest Vineyards

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Catena Cab SWhen I saw ‘High Mountain Vines’ on a wine label, my first thought was ‘How High?’ There was nothing to tell me on the bottle, but a quick check of the producer’s website gave me the answer: Catena’s Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £12.99) is made from grapes grown in 4 different vineyards in Argentina’s Mendoza region, the lowest of which is 3100 feet (950 metres) above sea level and the highest 4750 feet (1450 metres). To put that in context, Britain’s highest mountain is Ben Nevis at 4400 feet (1350m) – and you won’t find any vineyards on top of Ben Nevis!

Catena aren’t alone among Argentinian producers in choosing to plant their vines at such an extreme altitude. The whole of the Mendoza vineyard area lies between 2300 and 4600ft (700 – 1400m), heights at which most European growers would say it was impossible to ripen grapes. But Argentina’s vineyards are far closer to the equator than most Northern Hemisphere sites – around latitudes of 32 – 33ᵒ S where conditions at sea level would be far too hot and dry for high quality wines. Their solution: head up into the foothills of the Andes Mountains around Mendoza. And, judging by the wines coming out of there, it has proved to be a great success.

The Catena Cabernet Sauvignon was rather ‘closed’ (not offering much on either nose or palate) when I first drew the cork during a wine course I was running but, at home, a couple of hours later and decanted, it showed lovely black fruits and spice, a really succulent mouthful that went very well with some Spaghetti Bolognese. I suppose, with an Argentinian wine, we should have paired it with some prime steak – oh, well! That would have been a good match, too.

Finally, for any record hunters among you, the highest commercial vineyard in the world is thought to be in Argentina’s Molinos sub-region, and sits at an altitude of 10206ft (3100m). Or does anyone know of a higher planting?

A Value White from the Douro

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Planalto Douro whiteNot long ago, Bristol Wine Blog featured a lovely red from Portugal’s Douro region (see Grapes + Feet = Wine). This time it’s a great value and delicious white from the same beautiful and spectacular area that’s caught my attention (Planalto’s Douro Reserva, £7.99 from Majestic Wine warehouses).

The Douro is most famous historically for its Port and, more recently for some high quality red wines made from the same grape varieties found in port, but there are also some interesting native white varieties grown. Planalto’s Reserva is a most attractive, unoaked blend of 5 of them: Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Códega and Arinto. Congratulations to any readers who recognised a couple of Vinho Verde grapes and one from Madeira among that group!

The wine itself is rather more complex that I would expect at the price, but the aromas and flavours are all quite subtle. The nose is clean and citrusy with lime and even a hint of mandarin, while the palate is crisp, fresh and quite dry with green fruits, some herbiness and a little pleasant bitterness to liven up the finish. All-in-all, a great value wine that’s nicely balanced and harmonious with a bit of distinctive character to it. I’d recommend it for lovers of unoaked Chardonnay, but also for those who might choose Pinot Grigio – Planalto is a wine that isn’t too assertive, yet is in no way bland.

As for food matches, it would be pretty flexible: nothing too heavy of course, but fish – especially sardines as it’s from Portugal – and sea-food would be ideal, or salads, and it would make a great picnic wine. Or how about drinking it on its own as an aperitif?

Planalto is one of brand names of the Sogrape family of companies, one of Portugal’s largest wine producers, who are also famous – or you might think infamous! – for producing (I’ll whisper it) Mateus rosé. But please don’t let that put you off the Planalto – this is a most enjoyable wine!

Bordeaux: The Bourgeois Choice

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Bordeaux Cru BourgeoisHow much would you pay for a bottle of wine? If you fancy some Château Lafite 2000, then the answer is £900! That’s the price it fetched at auction recently. And that’s not a one-off. Another Bordeaux from the same highly regarded vintage, a Mouton-Rothschild this time, went for almost as much. Lafite and Mouton are 2 of Bordeaux’s famous 5 ‘First Growths’, the top category of an elite list of around 60 estates identified more than 150 years ago and which have, in the main, retained their status ever since.

These wines, inevitably, have always been expensive but, thanks to today’s investment market with its narrowly focussed interest in the very top names, the increase in their prices has outstripped the rise in wine prices as a whole to a ridiculous extent. I remember when I was studying for my Wine Diploma exams about 15 years ago, you could buy a bottle of one of these prestigious names for, perhaps, 20 times the price of an ordinary wine, whereas today, the gap is more than 100 times. We even got to taste a couple during the course.

No longer! With prices like that, it seems that few of us will ever taste any of these wines in the future. But all is not completely lost. There are hundreds of wine estates in Bordeaux and it’s not just these very top ones that are producing good wines. Even for around £20 a bottle, you can find quality. OK, it won’t be a Lafite or a Mouton, but, if you choose well, it will give you the essence of the Bordeaux style, should make really enjoyable drinking and it won’t break the bank either.

The key is to look for wines with the words ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on the label. These come from estates that are outside of that elite – and largely ring-fenced – list of ‘classed growths’ I mentioned earlier. By contrast, the Cru Bourgeois now have to submit their wines to a tasting panel every year to qualify for the right to use the classification and so take a real interest in making high quality wines. It hardly seems right to pick out just one to mention when there are so many good Cru Bourgeois around, but the Château Sénéjac 2010 (Majestic, £23) I bought recently was delicious and typical of all that’s best in good Bordeaux – and you could buy 3 cases of it and still have change from one bottle of the Lafite!

A Strange Blend

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Dandelion Shiraz RieslingShiraz (also known as Syrah) and Riesling: 2 of the best-known wine grapes. Each is capable of making great varietal* wines and Shiraz also blends happily with Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache or many other varieties if the winemaker doesn’t want to follow the varietal route. But a Shiraz-Riesling blend? Now that’s something I’d never seen – well, not until my wife picked up the bottle (pictured above) from Dandelion Vineyards in Grape and Grind, one of our local wine merchants, recently. I was intrigued so we bought a bottle (£12.45).

A venison casserole on a cool, damp day last week (this is summer in England, after all!) seemed the ideal opportunity to try it. The wonderfully named ‘Lion’s Tooth of McLaren Vale’ had all the characteristics I would expect from a good quality Australian Shiraz: lovely ripe berry fruit, a hint of eucalyptus (especially on the nose), attractive spicy oak and just enough soft tannins to suggested a wine that, while delicious now, could also reward keeping awhile. But what of the Riesling? Although the label said there was only 5% in the blend, I struggled to detect any influence at all. I checked Dandelion Vineyards website to see what I was missing. The winemaker’s own tasting note was similar to my thoughts on the Shiraz flavours but then added ‘and hints of lime marmalade from the Riesling’. I tasted the wine again. Clearly Australian lime marmalade is very different from the English version!

I doubt whether we’re going to see many blends of these two varieties on our wine shelves in the future, especially as heat-loving Shiraz vines and cool climate preferring Riesling rarely grow close together. But it was an interesting blend to try and this example was well-made, delicious, food-friendly and good value.

I’m just not sure how much the Riesling added to the overall experience, but, if you see a bottle, why not try it for yourself?

*a varietal wine is one where the wine is made from a single grape variety rather than a blend of 2, 3 or more different varieties.

Seriously worth trying

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Pacherenc“I don’t like sweet wine”. I’ve heard that so often on one of my wine courses, followed moments later after a tasting by “but that one’s different!”

There does seem to be a fairly widespread blind-spot among wine drinkers when it comes to sweet wines – I don’t know if it’s the result of one bad experience or, perhaps, because it’s not considered ‘cool’ to enjoy them; although, if you are going to enjoy a dessert wine, cool (a half an hour or so in the fridge) is the right way!

But people frequently change their mind about sweet wine if you can get them to try one, but they do need persuading. Consequently, sweet wines are more commonly bought in shops that offer professional advice to customers rather than in supermarkets, that, with rare exceptions, don’t. So, I give 10 out of 10 to Waitrose for going against the trend and putting an obscure dessert wine on their shelves, but dressing it up to attract maximum attention.

Their “Seriously Peachy” (£8.99 for a half bottle) has a striking black, orange and white label. Yes, it does mention that it’s a dessert wine and where it comes from, but it’s the Seriously Peachy that catches the eye and says ‘try me’. And, if you do, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It’s a lovely, light, delicate, gently sweet wine, not at all cloying and with the seriously peachy aromas and flavours promised on the label. It actually comes from south-west France from the little-known (and difficult to pronounce!) Appellation of Pacherenc du Vic Bilh in the foothills of the Pyrenees and is made from the equally little-known but high quality local grape Petit Manseng (also used in another of my favourite wines, Jurançon).

It’s a great wine to enjoy with fruit desserts or lemon tart and, if you think it’s a bit expensive for just a half bottle, we opened one with the pudding course at a dinner party with friends recently and the half easily satisfied 4 keen wine lovers.

Do give it a try if you’re near a Waitrose (or you can buy it on line).

Grapes + Feet = Wine

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Douro Red“Wine made by foot treading”. Not words you see often on a wine bottle. Yet, for centuries, this was the routine method of crushing grapes to make wine. In fact, many considered it a better way than using traditional grape presses which tended to break the pips, releasing bitter oils. By contrast, foot treading was much gentler allowing just the juice to flow from the grapes and leaving the pips intact.

Modern wine presses are much better in this respect and mainly use compressed air to crush the grapes, but a few producers still prefer treading. This is particularly true in Portugal’s Douro Valley when making port. Here it is important not just to release the juice, but also to get deep colour into the liquid as quickly as possible. The colour comes, of course, from the grape skins and dancing on them for a few hours does the job perfectly. If you think it would be fun to have a go, get in touch with one of the port companies; just remember, most treaders spend the entire day in the vineyards picking the grapes before their 3- or 4-hour stint treading them in the evening. Also, at one time it was considered unlucky to allow females to tread the grapes, as they would turn the port sour! Fortunately, things have changed!

With all this talk of port, you won’t be surprised to know that the wine which inspired this blog also came from the Douro region. Vinha dos Santos (“the wine of the saints”) is from an estate that has been making wine for over 750 years and was formerly owned by the Cistercians (hence the name). This wine, made from old vines of 2 local grape varieties, is full of wonderful hedgerow fruit flavours with spicy, balsamic notes and, unusually, is completely unoaked which brings out the fruit beautifully. We were lucky to visit the winemaker, Anselmo Mendes, who has his own estate in northern Portugal’s Vinho Verde region last year and were really impressed with his dedication and passion – qualities that show through in his Vinha dos Santos. Available from Bristol’s Grape and Grind at £12.99 and worth every penny.

Sancerre Style, not Sancerre prices

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ReuillySancerre and Pouilly Fumé, the twin towns of the eastern Loire, turn out some lovely wines. But, because they are famous names and always in demand, the best tend to be expensive (you can easily pay £15 – £20 or even more). And, if you go for some of the cheaper examples found in supermarkets instead, they can be quite disappointing. So, how do you get the lovely, racy, pungent flavours of a good Loire Sauvignon Blanc without paying these sorts of prices?

Look at a map of the area and, just to the west of Sancerre, you’ll see Menetou-Salon; a little further west and you come to Quincy and Reuilly. All three of these villages also produce Sauvignon Blanc in much the same style as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, yet, as they are not nearly as widely known, prices – comparing wines of similar quality, of course – are far more reasonable.

Take Denis Jamain’s Les Pierres Plates Reuilly, for example. We opened a bottle recently and it went beautifully with some grilled sardines. It was absolutely textbook Loire Sauvignon with wonderful clean, fresh, gooseberry and green pepper flavours. Only a real expert could confidently say this wasn’t a high quality Sancerre. But, when you check the price, you’ll notice the difference: £11.50 from The Wine Society. And, in case you want to try value alternatives from the other two villages I mentioned, Wine Society also have Domaine Pellé’s Menetou-Salon (£11.95) and Majestic are offering Jean-Charles Borgnat’s Quincy (£11.49). Both recommended.

If you’re searching for reliable Loire Sauvignon even cheaper still, you may need to choose carefully, but I’d suggest you look even further west, over the border into Touraine, the region surrounding the town of Tours. At their best, wines labelled Sauvignon de Touraine can give you much of the same style and freshness as a modest Sancerre, but, production here is quite large and quality can be a bit variable, which is why I say you need to be selective. Above all, avoid Loire Sauvignon at bargain basement prices (which, these days, means below about £6) as cheap examples are often dominated by tart acidity with very little fruit – very unpleasant!

And finding bargains by seeking alternatives to famous names doesn’t stop on the Loire. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Pouilly Fuissé and many others have their value alternatives. But that’s a Bristol Wine Blog for another day. In the meantime, just look around.