The Douro: Great Wines as well as Port

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Douro Terraced VineyardsExciting things are happening in Portugal’s Douro region! It has always had some of the world’s most spectacular terraced vineyards (see above) and an ideal climate in which to ripen some high quality local grape varieties. But, since the best parts of the Douro were officially designated by the Marquês de Pombal in 1756, the most highly regarded – and profitable – output of the region has always been port. Wine only came from the lesser vineyards – those not considered good enough for port.

But times are changing fast. Today, many port estates are realising the commercial importance of wine and are taking it far more seriously. As a result, we’re seeing some really good reds (and even a little white) alongside the traditional ports. Producers are using the same grape varieties they use for port – grapes like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca, for example; it’s what goes on in the winery that’s different. For port, fortifying grape spirit is added part way through the fermentation process; this kills the yeasts before they’ve converted all the grape sugar into alcohol, leaving the strong (20% abv), sweet drink we’re used to. Wine is, in many ways simpler: you leave the yeasts alone to complete their job, turning all the sugar to alcohol and giving a lovely, rich, smooth dry wine.

You won’t have to search too hard for very drinkable Douro wines – nor pay silly prices for something really enjoyable. Take the simply named ‘Crasto’ (available from Majestic), for example; a delightful blend of the 4 port varieties mentioned above gives a medium-bodied unoaked red full of lovely blackberry fruit and spice and with excellent length. A little tannin suggests there’s no hurry to drink up and all for £8.99. A bargain! I struggle to think of a better wine anywhere for the money.

Calling all Wine Snobs

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‘Are you a wine SNOB?’ Those were the opening words of an email I received recently. My first reaction was ‘I hope not’ but then I read on. The message became clearer – also why the word was in capitals. It was all about a celebration of Bristol’s Big Green Week – an event supporting our city’s interest in a greener environment. And, in that context, SNOB stands for Sustainable, Natural, Organic and Biodynamic. So perhaps it might not be so bad to be a wine SNOB after all.

Big Green WeekProducers of SNOB wines aim to use fewer chemicals and less in the way of artificial additives. But there are very distinct differences in practices both between and within the 4 SNOB categories. Sustainable is probably the least ‘green’ of the 4 groups. It involves limiting the use of (but not necessarily eliminating entirely) herbicides and pesticides and finding more natural ways of dealing with infestations in the vineyard. In some cases, it may extend to using green energy for farm machinery and for the winery. Critics point out that individual producers set their own standards for sustainability – and some set the bar very low.

Organic is a step up and there are a number of standard-setting organisations, eg The Soil Association in the UK. These invariably ban all artificial chemicals in the vineyard (although, controversially, ‘Bordeaux Mixture’ – a spray of lime and copper sulphate, which can leave a copper residue – is allowed). Certification is, however, quite costly and time-consuming and many producers who are effectively organic don’t bother to register (and therefore can’t put ‘organic’ on their labels). A sort of ‘super-organic’ is Biodynamic. Here, producers work to strict standards set down by Demeter or Biodyvin. They aim to build up the soil’s own resistance to disease by plant and manure sprays and work with nature for the timing of planting, pruning and harvesting.

‘Natural’ is the most difficult of the 4 categories to define. Many (but not all) Natural producers work organically or biodynamically in the vineyard, but also aim to intervene in the winemaking process as little as possible, so use natural yeasts and minimal or no added sulphur dioxide.

But the key question must be: do SNOB wines taste better? On a number of occasions in blind tastings, I have picked out biodynamic wines as more intense and more vibrant but I can’t say I’ve had the same success rate with organic and sustainable wines. And, as for natural wines, I’ve tasted some beauties, but also a few that seemed to me and other tasters (but not to the producer!) to be faulty.

So, it seems I’m a wine SNOB some of the time. How about you?

Italy’s New South

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For much of the 20th century, most wine lovers ignored the south of Italy – and with good reason. Co-operatives with low ambition dominated the scene, production methods were often firmly rooted in the past and the focus was on quantity rather than quality. Prices were low – but, even so, few, apart from the locals, found anything worth buying.

Fast forward to today and what a transformation! Young, talented winemakers have settled in the south tempted by the range of interesting and distinctive grape varieties that have grown there for generations, the perfect Mediterranean climate to ripen them and, perhaps, most importantly, EU grants to install modern winery and cellar equipment. And the result: delicious, flavoursome, food-friendly wines as we discovered when Bristol’s Flinty Red restaurant recently ran a food and wine pairing evening based on the products of the 2 south-western Italian regions of Calabria and Campania.

Calabria Campania tastingCalabria (the ‘toe’ of Italy) is the less well-known and its food, based on simple ingredients with the emphasis on vegetables, generously spiced up with peppers, was potentially the more difficult to match. But Colacino’s Savuto Bianco (£10.99) was perfect with some anchovies and tomatoes as a starter, while the light-bodied Rosso from the same company (also £10.99) had just the right amount of pepperiness to complement a dish of broad bean mash with greens (much tastier than it sounds!)

Campania, around the Bay of Naples, is famous for Buffalo Mozzarella, Ricotta, aubergines and pasta and all put in an appearance in various delicious dishes alongside some of the wines of the region. Vadiaperti’s Greco di Tufo (£14.99), a lovely, fresh, herby white, coped well with the sweetness of some figs served with mozzarella, while the same producer’s Coda di Volpe (£13.99) was richer but more minerally – ideal with some rustic pasta with courgettes, lemon and prawns.

Aglianico has long been one of my favourite southern Italian red varieties and Selvanova’s dark, tannic, black-fruited example (£15.99) simply confirmed my view. Although I’d usually team it with some pan-fried venison, that’s a non-starter on an Italian menu and it went just as well with a really tasty roulade of aubergines.

All in all, a most enjoyable and interesting evening. All wines mentioned are available from Corks of Cotham.

What’s wrong with American wine?

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“In the UK, we buy millions of bottles of wine from the USA each year, yet Bristol Wine Blog never mentions them. What’s wrong with American wine?” It’s a fair point; the United States is currently 4th in the list of countries importing wine to the UK (160 million bottles a year), yet it’s ages since I tagged an American wine. But this is no anti-American prejudice – there is a reason. And my questioner will be pleased to hear that I’m recommending an excellent, value for money Californian red today.

But first, an explanation: US wine exports are mainly focussed on 2 sorts of customer: one is the supermarket buyer who wants easy-drinking, fruity wines from familiar brands that are always available, often on special offer bringing prices down to around the £5 or £6 mark. Although many of these are pleasant enough, they’re not wines to recommend. The second category is at the exact opposite end of the wine market: aimed at consumers looking for something very special, hand-crafted, from a famous highly reputed named estate and probably with a high 90s score from Robert Parker. Such wines might cost £50, £100 or even more and, not surprisingly, are out of reach for me. So, no mention of those either.

What is sadly lacking from the USA’s exports here is a wide choice of wines in, what I call ‘the value sweet-spot’ – currently between around £8 and £15 – and it’s that group that I concentrate on and mention here most often. However, as promised, I have found one bottle from California that is definitely not to be missed – and, on a supermarket shelf, too! Bonterra MerlotBonterra’s Merlot from Mendocino County (Waitrose, £12.99) is a delightful cherry and plum fruited red with lovely smoky hints from subtle barrel ageing. The alcohol (13.5%) is beautifully restrained which makes the wine really food-friendly – lamb, beef, hard cheese would all go well.

So, I’m happy to recommend wines from the US – I’d love to recommend more; it’s just so difficult to find the right quality here at the right price. Unless there are any suggestions out there for bottles I’ve missed? Please let me know.

Tokaji – but so much more!

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For many wine lovers, mention Hungary and they immediately think of the wonderful sweet wines of Tokaji. Others – slightly older – may have less pleasant memories: of heavy, rustic, headache-inducing reds called Bulls Blood. Happily, Hungary has moved on from the latter, but, these days, is far more than just a producer of sweet wines, as a recent tasting, hosted by George Zsiga of Danube Wines, for the Bristol Tasting Circle proved.

Hungarian selectionDanube Wines specialise in importing wines from some of Hungary’s dynamic young winemakers, who share a passion for working with that country’s treasury of characterful native grape varieties. Among the whites are Olaszrizling, not to be confused with Germany’s Riesling. We tasted 2: Figula’s clean and herby, an ideal aperitif (£9.20) and the rather more complex, creamy, subtly oaked version from Laposa (£16.50). Furmint is the variety more commonly associated with sweet Tokaji, but can also produce some delightful dry whites; Zsirai’s fennel and spice flavoured example is excellent value at £9.99.

The attractive strawberry fruit of Vestztergombi’s Kadarka (£11.90) made a lovely easy-drinking introduction to the reds, but Kekfrankos (also known as Blaufrankish) is clearly the red variety of choice. Takler’s rich, spicy Reserve (£17.30) shows the grape on its own, but it may be even better as part of a blend. The famous winery of Tibor Gal includes some Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the Kekfrankos in both their Egri Bikaver (£11.90) and their Bikaver Superior (£17.50). Both show rich black fruits and an appealing pepperiness. Drink the Egri over the next 2 or 3 years and keep the Superior for at least another 5 when the tannins will have softened beautifully.

And then there were the sweet wines. Not just the traditional Tokaji (£29.99) with its wonderful intense mandarin and honey flavours but also Tundermese (“fairytale”) (£11.90) – lighter and less sweet but still a delightful apricot-scented dessert wine from late harvested grapes.

All the wines mentioned are available from Danube Wines (www.danubewines.co.uk).

Great wine – shame about the label!

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Ermita del Conde SpainThis may be one of the worst wine labels I have ever seen! There’s no information on it to tell me about the wine in the bottle – not where it comes from or even whether it’s red or white. And as for the design: I guess the blobs are meant to be grapes, but couldn’t they make them just a little more attractive? If the bottle would have been on a supermarket or wine merchant’s shelf, I’d certainly have left it there without a second thought. And I’d have missed a gem!

Fortunately, the notes in the Wine Society catalogue were more revealing and tempted me to buy. Ermita del Conde (£12.50) is a rich, warming red made from Tempranillo, Spain’s best and most popular grape, a major part of the blend in Rioja. But this wine comes, not from Rioja, but from further west, just outside the famous D.O. (the Spanish equivalent of Appellation Contrôlée) of Ribera del Duero, from a 100-year-old vineyard planted 900 m (2700 ft) up on the high central plateau of Spain. The age of the vines give this red real depth and the altitude ensures that enough acidity remains in the ripe grapes to balance the fruit and the alcohol (a not-intrusive 14%).

The wine, as you might expect from that figure, is quite full-bodied and rich and the flavours are intense: blackcurrant jam, figs and dried fruit with hints of spice. Although already 5 years old, it is still quite tannic and will surely be better for another 2 or 3 years in bottle, but, if you want to drink it now, decant it a couple of hours in advance. Definitely a food wine – pair it with something robust and flavoursome to enjoy it at its best.

It’s a real find – but can someone please do something about that label!

A Good Time for the Rosés

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Loire RoseIt’s June and the forecasters have promised us some warmer weather in a few days, so let’s think about a perfect wine for summer: a chilled rosé. There’s quite a variety on the shelves ranging in colour from the palest pink through various orange tones to those that could almost be classed as a red. But the colour, however attractive – or not – is far less important than the taste. And that, too, can vary enormously. Many years ago, off-dry Rosés d’Anjou were all the rage; California dominates that style now with their ‘blush’ wines. But my own preference is for something crisper, dry and refreshing – the sort of wine you can drink on its own sitting in the garden or pair with picnics, salads and other light summer dishes.

The colour for a rosé (or a red) wine comes from the grape skins so, not surprisingly, some of the best rosés are made with high quality red grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are used but Grenache and, particularly, Pinot Noir are even better suited to this style. I mentioned in my blog about the English Wine Week tasting how many stands there were showing delicious Pinot Noir rosés, but I have also been impressed recently by an example from a little-known corner of northern France.

Domaine de Villargeau’s Pinot Noir Rosé (Wine Society, £8.50) comes from the Coteaux de Giennois at the eastern end of the Loire. It’s an attractive pale pink colour with lovely strawberry and raspberry flavours and a delicate, clean, but lingering finish. I think it’s a real bargain, particularly when compared to similar bottles from nearby Sancerre, where you’d expect to pay far more. Drink on its own or pair it with a Salad Niçoise.

Now, all we need for perfection is the weather!