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.

A Library – but not as we know it!

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Louise at The Library“Going to the library” has just taken on a new meaning with the opening recently in Bristol of The Library Wine Bar. Owned by sisters Louise (pictured) and Sarah Hawkins, the location, in Cheltenham Road, close to The Arches, may at first seem a little surprising. But it is just a few steps from vibrant Gloucester Road, one of the few places in Bristol where you can still buy fresh meat, fish, vegetables, bread and, of course, wine from small independent shops that have stood out against the march of the supermarket chains. And, with the locals clearly keen to support these small businesses, The Library might just have found an ideal spot.

Naturally, we had to try it. I opted for a glass of Torrontes from Argentina (£5 for 175ml) – a delicious, crisp and fragrant white, with lovely intensity of flavour and real length in the mouth – whereas my wife picked an Alboriño (£6), an old favourite of ours, even more so since we visited the region of production, Galicia in north-west Spain, last year. The Alboriño was rather fuller and richer than my Torrontes (of course, we had to try each other’s!), with a mouth-coating, almost oily texture and attractive tropical fruit flavours. Either would have gone well with food (The Library serve cheese and charcuterie platters), but also made very enjoyable drinking on their own, while we chatted to Louise.

There are around 30 wines to choose from, from all around the world – and there’s a sensible mix of the familiar – Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, southern French Merlot, Rioja for example – and the more interesting and adventurous – a Croatian Riesling certainly fits into this category! About half the wines are available by the glass or carafe, the rest by bottle or half-bottle. Prices are fair, without the excessive mark-ups you all too often find in restaurants and, judging by our two glasses, opened bottles are kept in good condition and the wine is served at just the right temperature.

If you’re around the area, do pop in, I’m sure they’ll be pleased to see you; they’re open every day, except Mondays, from 12 noon.

Boring Label, Lovely Wine

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FrappatoTake a look at the bottle pictured above. How many of you would buy it if you saw it on a wine shop shelf? Or even pick it up and give it a second look? I suspect not many. And I can’t blame you. It’s hardly the most inspiring label I’ve ever seen and, if the name ‘Frappato’ means nothing to you, you’ll almost certainly pass it by and choose something else that looks more promising.

But, a couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to go on a marvellous wine tour around Sicily and so, when I saw Frappato, I immediately recognised one of that island’s high quality native grape varieties. I thought about the delicious, easy-drinking red wines I’d enjoyed while over there, but rarely seen in the UK since. And so I bought a bottle (£10.99 from one of Bristol’s growing band of good independent wine merchants, Grape and Grind in Gloucester Road). My memory proved correct! The contents are a lot more interesting than the label.

The producer, Feudo di Santa Tresa, who grow their vines organically in the south-east of Sicily, have turned out a wine that is quite light bodied, rather in the style of a good Beaujolais, with lovely bitter cherry fruit and attractive hints of spice. We drank it with some pan-fried duck breasts but this is just the sort of red wine that would go well with a robust fish, such as tuna, or even on its own. A half-hour in the fridge beforehand wouldn’t go amiss, either.

For a long time, Sicily was regarded as a part of Italy that true wine lovers avoided. No longer! Frappato is just one of a number of good local red grape varieties – Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese are others, and there’s some attractive whites too. And, because the wider public hasn’t yet caught onto the quality, prices are still very reasonable.

So, the next unexciting label you see, check if the wine comes from Sicily, and if it does, give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Units of Alcohol: the Facts

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Camel Valley Pinot Noir“Men should not regularly drink more than 3 – 4 units of alcohol a day and women not more than 2 – 3 units”. That’s the UK government’s advice for safe drinking. But just what exactly is a unit of alcohol? A couple of comments made to me recently have confirmed my view that there’s a lot of confusion about this.

First, the facts: a unit of alcohol is defined as 10ml (one hundredth of a litre) of pure alcohol. But the wine, beer, spirits, or whatever that we drink isn’t pure alcohol; wine mostly varies between 8% and 15%, beer is around 3% – 6% and spirits 35% – 40%. By the same measure, pure alcohol would be 100%.

So, how can we use that information (shown on every bottle or can of alcohol sold in the UK) to work out how many units we are drinking? Let me give you an example: look at the bottle in the picture. In the bottom right-hand corner of the label, you can just make out the figure 12%. That means that a litre of that wine would contain 12 units, but a standard size bottle is only ¾ of a litre (usually written 75cl or 750ml) and so our bottle contains 9 units (¾ of 12). Most wine today is a bit more than 12% – typically 13 or 13½% – so I usually recommend you think of a bottle of wine as 10 units; if you do that, you won’t go far wrong.

The same calculation works when you buy wine by the glass. It is usually served in 175ml measures, with a large glass 250ml. If the wine is 13.5%, then the smaller glass contains almost 2.4 units (.175 x 13.5) – close to the recommended daily limit for a woman – and the large almost 3.4 units (ditto for a man). And you can calculate the units in any drink in exactly the same way: the volume you are drinking multiplied by the alcoholic strength. (For beer drinkers, a pint is about 570ml).

A quick word of warning for those who drive: as little as 2 units may put you over the UK drink-drive limit, so, if you’ve had a glass of wine with your lunch and intend to drive home, wait awhile; it takes about an hour for the body to process 1 unit of alcohol.

I hope you found the information in this blog useful and it hasn’t put you off drinking wine! For more on the subject, refer to http://www.drinkaware.co.uk.

Wine – contains grapes!

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Wine label showing ingredientsWine contains grapes! That’s good to know! And if you want proof, look at the back label of any bottle of wine produced for The Co-operative supermarket chain. Unlike most bottles which just give the warning advice ‘contains sulphites’, all the Co-op’s own-label wines have a list of ingredients on them. These lists are normal on packaged food, but are quite a rare sight on a wine bottle. So, let’s see what our wine actually contains – stand by for some surprises – and, as many of the ingredients may be unfamiliar to you, what each of the ingredients is doing in the wine. (A word of warning, though: as they say on TV, you may want to look away now!)

Grapes, as you might hope, are the main ingredient. Legally, if the label just says ‘wine’, the contents must be made from grapes. If you make wine from any other fruit, you have to say ‘blackberry wine’ or ‘rhubarb wine’ or whatever, not simply ‘wine’. Next on the list of ingredients are tartaric and citric acids. The first of these occurs naturally in grapes, but, it has been listed separately which makes me think that extra has been added along with some citric acid (lemon juice), probably to sharpen up the flavour. Then there’s acacia; occasionally acacia wood barrels are used rather than oak – is that what’s happened here or is it being used for flavouring or aroma? I could only guess.

Next, we move on to a group of ingredients that are there to make sure the wine reaches us in good condition. Ascorbic acid (better known as vitamin C) isn’t in there to make us healthier, but is commonly added to keep wine fresh and prevent oxidation. Another widely used preservative, potassium bisulphite, (the ingredient that gives rise to the ‘contains sulphites’ warning) is next on the list followed by potassium bitartrate, an ingredient to keep the wine stable after bottling.

Then there’s yeast, without which we’d be drinking grape juice not wine – again listed separately so it is likely that cultured yeasts have been added to create the fermentation (very common these days) rather than letting the wild yeasts do the job naturally. And, finally, any residual bits from the fermentation process have been filtered out of the wine using bentonite clay and a couple of other compounds. Sometimes egg whites or a fish-based protein are used instead, but, as this wine is described as suitable for vegetarians and vegans, they are not an option here.

So, there you have it. Wine is made from grapes – and a whole lot more! I hope I haven’t put you off drinking it!

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).