A Grand Wine Tasting

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Two FriendsNo, you’re not seeing things! It is Wallace and Gromit. And I was equally startled to encounter them at the annual wine tasting of local wine importer Vine Trail. They are now sharing a home with Aardman Animations, who created the iconic duo and the way to the tasting was through a selection of their statues. Quite a distraction!

Until, that is, I started tasting my way round the more than 20 wines from all corners of France that were on show. And it soon became clear that, although Vine Trail’s location had changed, their focus on high quality wines from small-scale French producers remains.

As ever, it’s difficult to choose just a few to mention, but, among the whites I tasted, I particularly noted Domaine de l’Oratoire St Martin’s Côtes du Rhône (£12.30) – quite full-bodied with a lovely, tangy freshness about it, while Domaine Montesquiou’s dry Jurançon (£12.49), an old favourite of ours, was beautifully balanced – subtle fruit and a delightful, refreshing acidity. For me, the reds were headed by Domaine de Cébène’s ‘Ex Arena’ (£13.60), a spicy, black-fruited blend of Grenache and Mourvedre from the Languedoc, one of 3 wines (all excellent) that Vine Trail import from this estate. Domaine Laurens’ Marcillac (£9.90) from a little known area in the shadow of the Massif Central, also showed well; its attractive peppery fruit character and quite light body reminding me of a good Beaujolais.

If you’re interested in these, or any of Vine Trail’s other wines, you can find details on their website, http://www.vinetrail.co.uk (minimum order 1 case, which can be 12 assorted bottles) or you can taste them at one of a number of good restaurants to whom Vine Trail also supply wines including Bristol’s latest Michelin Star winner, Wilks in Chandos Road.

As for this tasting, I can’t do better than paraphrase the title of the film that made Wallace and Gromit famous: it was a ‘Grand Evening Out’ and a ‘Grand Wine Tasting’!

The Oldies are the Best!

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Galicia and Douro 2013 Wine Pics 030You sometimes see the words ‘Old Vines’ on a wine label (or the French equivalent ‘Vieilles Vignes’). This can be an indication of a better quality wine, but why?

Old vines will, over time, have developed a larger root system to absorb more of the water and other essential elements the plant needs to thrive. But they also tend to be less vigorous and produce fewer bunches of grapes. So each grape gets more nutrition than it would in a younger vine where it would have to compete with many more berries for its share of the available food. Result: more flavoursome grapes leading to better quality wine.

But, before you go out to look for Old Vine wines, a word of warning: there is no legal definition of what constitutes an ‘old’ vine. The vine pictured above (in a vineyard in Galicia in North-West Spain) is said to be over a 100 years old and is still producing commercially. No-one would argue that that is truly an old vine, but when does ‘old’ begin?

Grapes can be used to make wine once the vine is 3 years old but many winemakers feel that vines don’t start producing their best fruit until they are at least 10 years old. From then on, depending on conditions and assuming the vine remains disease-free, it will generally produce a good crop until somewhere between about 20 and 35 years old, after which the number of bunches will gradually start to reduce. For me, it is at this point that it really becomes an Old Vine.

You don’t always have to pay a lot for a good example: Tesco’s Finest Old Vine Garnacha from the Navarra region of Spain is just £6.99 and claims to be the product of more than 40 year old vines. It is beautifully smooth and mellow with pleasant red fruits and hints of spice. A great accompaniment to some grilled lamb chops.

And while on the subject of Tesco, thank you to a regular reader for reminding me that, in my last blog, ‘Try before you Buy’, I forgot to mention that Tesco’s Wine Fair is coming to Bristol on 1 and 2 November. If you’re attending on the Sunday, come and have a chat – I’ll be on the Wine and Spirit Education Trust stand. And, if you’re not in Bristol, check Tesco’s website, because the Fair is visiting a number of places around the country and may be close to you at some other time.

Try Before You Buy

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Tesco Wine Fair 3It’s that time of year again! The time when most wine merchants are gearing up for Christmas (yes, already!) They know wine sales rocket at this time of year and so they’re busy making plans. And part of that plan is to persuade you, the customer, to buy from them, rather than from someone else. So, expect special offers and deals – they’re a certainty – but, for me, even more useful is the chance to try before you buy.

A number of local wine merchants are holding pre-Christmas events at which you can taste a selection of their wines before you decide. There’s often a fee for these tastings, but most firms will refund that if you buy some wine from them. So, if you like what you taste, the tasting is free, if you don’t like what you taste, you’ve saved yourself from buying bottles you’ll regret. A real win/win situation.

For those who are based in and around Bristol, I have listed at the end of this blog the local tastings I know about. If you know of any others, leave me a message and I’ll happily include them in a future posting. Please be sure to contact the companies directly to book tickets in advance, as numbers are often limited.

And I suppose this is the time to mention that there’s another way to taste before you buy: join one of my wine courses. “The New World of Wine” begins on 12 November and runs from 7pm to 9pm every Wednesday for 5 weeks at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre. Not just talking about the New World countries, but also the changes occurring within the Old World to deal with the competition. A fascinating subject, some interesting wines to taste and I won’t be trying to sell you any wine, just pointing you in the right direction. You can book on line at http://www.bristolcourses.com. (Booking is essential). £60 for the course plus the cost of the wines (maximum £6 per week) will be shared.

Local wine tastings:

Tuesday 21 October 6pm – 8pm: Vine Trail, Aardman Animations, Gas Ferry Road, Bristol, £10. For tickets: enquiries@vinetrail.co.uk

Thursday 23 October 6pm – 9pm: Great Western Wine, Assembly Rooms, Bath, £20. http://www.greatwesternwine.co.uk

Saturday 8 November 1pm – 6pm: Averys, Bristol Grammar School, University Road, Bristol, £25. http://www.averys.com

Bulgarian wine: a different view

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Bulgarian tastingBulgaria – perhaps not the first place you’d think of for quality wines? No, me neither! But I’m always keen to learn and try different wines so I deliberately kept an open mind as I booked in for the Bristol Tasting Circle’s first event after the summer break.

I shouldn’t have worried; the wines were a revelation and the evening as a whole both fascinating and most enjoyable. Our guest speakers, Judith Burns and Trevor Long from Pacta Connect, are well-established importers of wines from Croatia, Slovenia, Turkey and Bulgaria and their expertise in the region was evident.

Bulgarian wine has a long history, dating back to the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, interrupted by Ottoman rule and then diverted from the quality path by the need to supply the thirsty, but undiscerning, Russian market. Even now, look along any supermarket shelf and, likely as not, the cheapest wine present will be a Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon.

But there’s another side to Bulgarian wine. Happily, a number of smaller producers have realised that the country can make high quality wines, too and some of these feature on Pacta Connect’s very specialist wine list. We tasted a surprising bottle-fermented Chardonnay-based fizz, a couple of attractive, aromatic whites and a pale, delicate rosé. But, as you might expect, the real focus of the tasting was the selection of reds both from local varieties, such as Mavrud and Melnik and the more widely recognised Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Interestingly, whatever the grape and from whichever part of the country the wine came, all the reds were deeply coloured to the point of being almost opaque and with a dark, brooding quality to them that said that they needed to be drunk with food. The wines are clearly slow maturing, too – Rumelia’s Merul Selection (£15.50), a blend of Mavrud with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, was already 5 years old, yet the prominent tannins suggested a wine for keeping another 2 or 3 years at least.

Pacta Connect are based in Brighton, but, if you’re interested in trying some of their wines, either from Bulgaria or one of the other countries they specialise in (and I would certainly recommend you do), you can contact them via their website http://www.pactaconnect.co.uk.

If you’d like to join the Bristol Tasting Circle and enjoy events like this every month, contact our Secretary: judith.tyler@talktalk.net.

No more Vins de Pays

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Montval Syrah IGPA couple of weeks ago, in Bristol Wine Blog, I was complaining about the introduction of the Gran Selezione category into the wines of Chianti. I fear I’m becoming a Grumpy Old Man as, this time, I turn my attention to the replacement of France’s Vin de Pays category with Indication Géographique Protégée. Not just is the new designation harder to pronounce (although most will abbreviate it to IGP) but why change something that most wine drinkers recognise as offering attractive and approachable wines at sensible prices? And, of course, Vin de Pays also allowed the occasional maverick producer – Mas de Daumas Gassac springs immediately to mind – to make something really interesting and special that completely ignored the rigid Appellation Contrôlée (AC) rules.

But all is not doom and gloom; the new name is just that: a renaming. All the advantages of the previous Vin de Pays system – especially the ability to plant grape varieties outside their traditional areas and to name the variety on the label – remain and, in fact, I recently enjoyed a wine I’ve bought for many years as a Vin de Pays, now proudly displaying the new IGP designation; they’ve even spelt it out in full!

Pour a glass of Domaine de Montval’s Syrah (Majestic, £9.99) and the wonderful nose of violets and rose petals immediately hits you. It truly is a delight! And when you taste it, it’s quite a chunky wine, but with the same perfumed fruit flavours at first. Leave it awhile, however, and it evolves into a really complex mouthful with white pepper and spice flavours. A real food wine, especially beef or venison and a proper wine for cooler autumn and winter days. At under a tenner, it’s a bargain, as are so many French wines that don’t claim the AC.

And if you’re wondering why this wine is an IGP, not an AC – the rules for the local ACs (Costières de Nîmes and Languedoc) specify that wines should be made from a blend of grapes, so a 100% Syrah like this one – however delicious and true in style to the wines of the area – doesn’t qualify. Petty or what?

P.S Sorry the picture’s a bit blurred – camera problem, not too much wine!

Chianti: A Classico Tour

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48 SelvapianaLast time in Bristol Wine Blog, I said that we had been on a trip to Tuscany to taste some Chianti. We travelled with Arblaster and Clarke (www.winetours.co.uk) in a small group very ably hosted by Master of Wine, Jane Hunt, and stayed in the heart of the Chianti Classico wine region in the hamlet of Fonterutoli, one of the famous names of Chianti and in the same ownership for over 550 years.

Our schedule of wine visits read like a Who’s Who of Chianti’s best producers: Ricasoli, Badia a Coltibuono, Selvapiana and these, together with a number of lesser known estates (but not for long!) did not disappoint. My particular memories? Almost too many to mention, but the glorious countryside of the Tuscan hills – still green after one of the wettest summers on record – showed, once again why this has been a favourite tourist destination for so long.

The passion of the winemakers, too, not least at Castellare, where we were left in no doubt about the importance of preserving the traditions of Chianti – and of their contempt for the new Gran Selezione designation (see my previous Blog). And, tasting their wines over dinner meant that we were enjoying them as they should be enjoyed; Italian wines are meant to be drunk with food.

A ‘vertical tasting’ (no, that’s not a tasting conducted standing up, but one where several different vintages of the same wine are on offer!) at Terrabianca demonstrated just how much climate variation from year to year affects the wines as well as how bottles from 1997 through to 2008 were developing, but the real proof of the longevity of top quality Chianti was shown at Selvapiana, where a bottle from 1969 (the year I left school!) was still fresh, harmonious and beautifully mellow, despite its 45 years.

Sadly, with the airline security rules these days, there was little chance to buy anything from the vineyards, but wines from most of Chianti’s top estates are exported widely. 2 things to bear in mind if you are buying: every producer we spoke to was complaining about the weather this summer, so, when they eventually get to the shops, wines from 2014 are unlikely to be great. And, as I said last time, Chianti can range from the outstanding to the barely drinkable; the outstanding is definitely not cheap and the cheap, I fear, will, more than likely, disappoint.

Chianti: love it or hate it?

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24 Ricasoli winesFor me, the answer for many years has been ‘both’. Chianti is an enormous area and produces a vast quantity of wine ranging from the outstanding to the barely drinkable. So, how do you distinguish one from the other? There’s no simple method – Italian wine laws are massively complicated – but some knowledge of the best areas and the good producers has usually led me in the right direction. But a recent short break visiting some vineyards there showed that the whole thing is now becoming even more of a nightmare!

The word Riserva on the label of a bottle of Chianti indicates wines from selected grapes that have had longer ageing to produce a more complex and harmonious wine. These wines often come from a single estate and so the term Riserva can be a good guide to the best wines. But now, one part of the Chianti region, the part known as Chianti Classico has, controversially, come up with a sort of super Riserva to be known as Gran Selezione, where the wines have had extra ageing and all the grapes must come from a single estate. Spot the difference? No, nor do some of the producers we spoke to, who are refusing to use the term, while others are busy relabeling their Riservas as Gran Selezione.

And, if that isn’t complicated enough, some producers are adding a small proportion of Cabernet or Merlot grapes to the main Chianti grape, Sangiovese and ageing their wines in small French oak barriques. Others insist that only traditional local grape varieties should be blended with the Sangiovese and the wine aged in very large old oak or chestnut barrels. Both are quite within the rules of Chianti but, having tasted examples of each, I can say that these decisions make a real difference to the taste and character of the wine, yet there is no indication on the label which you’re getting. So, a system that Jancis Robinson MW once described as ‘that glorious confusion’ has been made worse, not better.

But we did taste some lovely wines during our trip and I’ll tell you about them next time.