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?

The Other Cabernet

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ChinonCabernet Sauvignon – perhaps the most recognised red wine grape in the world and one that many would put forward as the highest quality, too. But there’s another grape variety with the word ‘Cabernet’ in its name: Cabernet Franc may be less familiar to wine lovers but, grown in the right place and in the hands of a skilled winemaker, it is more than capable of producing attractive, classy reds. It can be found as part of the blend with ‘the other Cabernet’ and Merlot in Bordeaux or on its own, for example, in reds from France’s Loire Valley and, increasingly, the New World, too. Either way, it’s a variety that shouldn’t be ignored; try a bottle of the wine we opened for my birthday celebration recently and you’ll see what I mean!

Domaine Grosbois’ Clos du Noyer (Vine Trail, £16.40) is from the Loire village of Chinon and is made entirely with Cabernet Franc grapes from mature vines giving a lovely smooth, elegant wine with delicious black fruit flavours and great complexity and length. Most definitely a food wine, we teamed it with some pan-fried duck breasts, but it would have gone equally well with lamb chops or to accompany a hard cheese such as cheddar.

Chinon, in the beautiful area just west of Tours, is one of a group of neighbouring Appellations making very drinkable red wines from Cabernet Franc; others include Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil and St.Nicolas-de- Bourgueil and all are worth looking out for, as are the local white wines (Vouvray is the most famous name) made from the Chenin Blanc grape. (I always warn exam candidates about ‘Chinon’ and ‘Chenin’ – easy to confuse!)

But Cabernet Franc is not just the base for some delicious red wines, it has another claim to fame: it’s generally accepted to be one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon (the other being Sauvignon Blanc), the fortunate result, some 200 years ago, of a natural cross-pollination of the 2 different varieties in a Bordeaux vineyard. Since when, the offspring has, deservedly, gone from strength to strength, but, to my mind, it would be a mistake to ignore the original Cabernet.

Tokaji: wine of kings, king of wines

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TokajiTokaji (pronounced “Tok-eye”) is one of the most historic names in wine. Produced in the Hungarian region of Tokaj-Hegyalja for more than 400 years, it was described by the French king, Louis XIV as “the wine of kings, the king of wines”. Yet, for much of the 2nd half of the 20th century, the wine, and the vineyards that produced it, were so neglected that there was a real threat to its very existence. Fortunately, political changes at the end of the 1980s allowed English wine writer Hugh Johnson and a group of friends to intervene with much-needed investment, know-how and passion. Tokaji was saved – possibly only just in time.

Although the region produces some delicious dry white wines, its fame derives from its sweet wines, produced in a unique way: A small proportion of grapes are left on the vine after the main harvest until they have dried and become like raisins, concentrating the sugar. They are then picked and placed in a wooden tub known as a ‘puttony’. When the puttony is full, the dried grapes are gently mashed to a paste, which is then added to dry wine, mixed and soaked for 24-48 hours in order to extract the natural sugar content and flavours. The wine is then drawn off to ferment for a second time. The more puttonyos that are added, the sweeter will be the wine (and the higher the price). Most good wine merchants will have some. You’ll pay around £30 for a 5 puttonyos example but, as it is very rich and sweet, a bottle will serve more people than you might expect.

I’ve described the traditional way to make Tokaji, but, these days the region also produces other sweet wines made more conventionally. For example, Royal Tokaji Company’s Late Harvest, pictured above (Averys, £11.99 for a 50cl bottle) uses fully ripe, but not raisined, grapes and its lovely delicate apricot and marmalade flavours make it a perfect match for fruit desserts, blue cheese, or just for drinking on its own.

Whichever you choose, I think it’s worth celebrating a wine name with a centuries-long history that has been saved for future generations.