An Old Favourite

What does ‘Rioja’ mean to you?  For me, it’s a reliable old favourite that always has a place on our wine rack; a ‘go to’ wine when I don’t want to take the risk that one of the more obscure bottles, that I’m so often tempted by, doesn’t prove to be as good as I’d hoped. 

Yet many customers misunderstand Rioja.  How often have I heard that it’s a grape variety or that it’s always very oaky in taste?

Let’s start with a few basics.  Rioja is not a grape variety; it’s a wine from a defined region of Spain and you can find white and rosé versions as well as the more common red.  The main grape of red Rioja is Tempranillo but that’s often blended with other varieties, principally Garnacha (also known as Grenache). 

And then there’s the question of oak.  Some Riojas may be quite oaky in taste, but they are a minority.  So, if you don’t want an oaky wine (or if you do!), check the label.  It will probably say ‘Crianza’, ‘Reserva’ or ‘Gran Reserva’.  The first of these will be a young, fruity wine with little or no obvious oak influence – perfect for those who enjoy New World Merlot, for example.  Gran Reservas are the opposite.  These are the oaky ones, having spent considerable time in barrel and taken on the typical savoury, leathery flavours of a mature wine as well as the wood character.  In between are the Reservas, which are my favourites.  The best are beautifully balanced, retaining enough fruit and freshness to make them really drinkable but with added complexity from a little ageing and subtle oaking – the emphasis on ‘subtle’.

There are many producers making excellent examples of this style.  Muga’s Rioja Reserva is a good place to start for those who have been dubious about Rioja in the past.  There’s just a hint of oak there but it’s gentle and you’d barely notice it as it’s so well integrated into the overall palate of refreshing, juicy red fruits; it’s a very food-friendly wine, too – try it with simply grilled lamb chops.  Majestic have it for £17.99 but you’ll also find it in some bigger supermarkets, many wine merchants – and, of course, on our wine rack!

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A Tale of 2 Bottles

You may be wondering what the 2 wines in the picture have in common.  The answer is:  Absolutely Nothing!  But this blog is not about the wines (both were very enjoyable in their own very different ways), it’s about the difference between the bottles themselves.  One is a record breaker – but not for a positive reason: it’s the heaviest wine bottle I have ever known.  It weighed in – empty – at 923gm; that’s just over 2lbs for those who prefer imperial weights.  The other, for comparison, was just under half that weight (416gm, 15oz).  I’m sure you can guess from the picture which is which.

I don’t believe there are many wine producers who will be unaware of the change in our climate that is taking place and the impact our activities are having.  So why does El Enemigo choose to bottle their Bonarda in glass this heavy?  Perhaps the name is a giveaway: it apparently translates as ‘the enemy’ and maybe the weight of the bottle is a deliberate attempt to demonstrate the strength of the enemy.  I’m not convinced!  There are no practical reasons; other wines from the Mendoza region of Argentina arrive quite safely in Europe in bottles much lighter.  And, surely, few customers are fooled by the idea that a heavy bottle indicates a higher quality wine.

I blogged back in November 2021 at the time of the COP Climate Change Conference that actions, not words were necessary to change our destiny.  Clearly the message has been lost on this particular producer.

I’ve contacted The Wine Society to say that I won’t be buying another bottle of this wine until their supplier uses more environmentally-friendly bottles.  As customers, this is one way we can change the damaging policy of a few producers.  If you, too, feel strongly, can I urge you also to boycott extra heavy bottles and let your wine merchant know the reason so that they can pass the message back through the chain?

A Tricky Match

I’ve mentioned before in Bristol Wine Blog that Italy – and the south of that country in particular – is an excellent source of good value and very drinkable wines.  The warm Mediterranean climate that the area enjoys might suggest that the focus would be on reds and there are certainly some attractive examples to be found there.  But the hilly areas inland from Naples are a little cooler and for me, produce the best wines of the area: fresh, characterful whites from high quality native varieties such as Greco, Fiano and Falanghina.  I’ve noticed Fiano among some supermarkets’ premium own-label wines and it’s worth a try if you see one but, as none of these grapes is especially well known or fashionable, prices anywhere should be quite reasonable.

Italian wines are generally very food-friendly and are often my first choice to pair with possibly tricky food flavours.  And a Skate wing gently poached and served with a sauce involving orange and lime juices, fresh ginger and lemon grass has enough tricky flavours to defeat many wines; the citrus juices provide both a sweetness and a sharpness and the ginger and lemon grass bring in aromatic oriental flavours.  Added to which, skate is quite a robust fish and so the wine needs to be similarly full-flavoured.

Enter Calvese’s ‘La Gusca’ Falanghina (DBM Wines, £12.99) from vineyards in the Sannio region north-east of Naples.  A lovely, rich, mouth-coating white, completely unoaked with fresh flavours of lemon- and lime-peel that perfectly complemented the dish and with just enough weight from the 13.5% alcohol to neither overpower the food nor be overpowered by it.  All in all, an ideal pairing for a dish that might have proved difficult to match, although the wine was so delicious on its own as an aperitif, my wife and I were at risk of drinking it all before we even started our meal!

Can I Tempt ABCs?

Chardonnay is a strangely divisive grape variety.  For many, it’s simply the wine grape that makes the best white wines in the world – those from Burgundy, and the Côte d’Or in particular, being regularly quoted as examples of its greatness.  Yet, I’ve often met wine lovers who say they will drink ‘ABC’ (Anything but Chardonnay).  So, who is right?  The answer is complicated.

Unlike many grape varieties that need a particular climate and soil conditions to give of their best, Chardonnay will thrive almost anywhere where grapes will grow; it ripens reliably in cool areas such as Chablis (and, these days, even in England) but retains its freshness in the baking heat of Australia’s inland vineyards.  But the styles of wine produced vary dramatically with the temperature.

However, every bit as important as the effect of climate on the taste of Chardonnay is what happens in the winery.  Winemakers often see the grape as a blank canvas on which to weave their magic – magic that frequently involves the use of oak barrels (or, more mundanely, oak staves or chips) to create flavours that the grapes alone wouldn’t possess.  From the 1990s until the early 2010s, there was a trend towards more and more invasive use of oak dominating the fruit.  Perhaps this is when the ABCs tasted their Chardonnay? 

More recently, thankfully, many producers have significantly dialled back their use of oak to produce a wine where any oak flavour is much more subtle, often barely noticeable, but just used to round out a wine and give it an attractive, mildly spicy or savoury character.  Mission Estate’s Reserve Chardonnay from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand (Wine Society, £13.95) is an excellent example of this style.  Yes, it spends 9 months in French oak barrels, but these impart little overt oakiness to the wine just a delightful richness and mouth-filling character to complement, but not overpower, the lovely peachy and soft grapefruit flavours.

This is oaked Chardonnay as is should be.  I wonder if I can tempt any ABCs to try it?

Never Tasted Monastrell?

Monastrell is one of those grape varieties that most wine drinkers will have tasted at some time although often without realising it.  That’s because it’s frequently hidden behind regional names; many producers of Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf du Pape and other Rhône village reds include it in blends alongside Grenache and Syrah.  The same is true in the south of France – it’s used widely in the Languedoc and Provence and especially Bandol.  But none of these producers will use the name Monastrell; to the French, the variety is called Mourvèdre.  It’s also common in Australia, forming the ‘M’ of popular GSM blends (the same trio as used in the Rhône) and there’s quite a few acres planted in California, too, but here, as in Australia, it has yet another name – this time Mataro.

To find a wine actually labelled Monastrell, you need to turn to Spain and the hills overlooking the Mediterranean coast in particular.  It thrives in areas such as Alicante, Valencia, Yecla and Jumilla where the abundance of sun and heat ensure that this thick-skinned variety can ripen fully – sometimes yielding wines more like port than red wine.  Happily, much of the Yecla and Jumilla DOs are at high altitude providing cooler nights so that the grapes retain good levels of acidity and, as a result, the wines are better balanced with (slightly) more moderate alcohol levels.

We opened a bottle from the producer Volalto from the Jumilla region recently (Wine Society, good value at £12.50).  Made from grapes harvested from vineyards around 900m (almost 3000ft) above sea level, this was delightfully fresh and clean, hiding its 14.5% alcohol well and showing plenty of black and dried fruit flavours, particularly figs, also some attractive earthiness and subtle hints of spicy oak.

Monastrell (with its many aliases) is not a particularly fashionable grape variety but, when well made, can produce rich, full-bodied wines that are generally very food friendly.

A Message for 2023

Let me begin this, my first Bristol Wine Blog of 2023, by wishing you a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year.  

After a couple of years when Covid restricted our ability to meet with friends and family, we had hoped for a more positive time this year but, looking around at all the sadness and conflict in the world, my wife and I chose to make the holiday season quite a low-key affair although we did, of course, enjoy a glass or two to remind ourselves that we are among the luckier ones.

The Jurançon region is in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the French side and is best known as a source of delicious late-harvested dessert wines.  But the same local grape varieties, picked earlier, are also used to produce some full, rich dry whites (always labelled ‘Jurançon Sec’).  We opened an excellent example to accompany some cheeses shared with a couple of good friends over the holiday break.  Domaine Cauhapé’s ‘Geyser’ Sec (Wine Society, £13.50) has lovely, vibrant flavours of grapefruit and honey and a long satisfying finish.  Not just a wine to pair with cheeses – it would work well with elegant fish dishes, too.

Of the reds we enjoyed, Te Mata’s Syrah from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand (Majestic, £14.99) went perfectly with some slow-cooked lamb shanks.  It’s significant that the producer chose to use the French name for the grape variety, Syrah, (rather than Shiraz), as the wine is definitely made in a more restrained, ‘European’ style with perfumed black fruits and hints of pepper.  Delightful.

And so, to the one question that always arises at this time of year: ‘what was the best wine you tasted last year?’  As ever, I find that almost impossible to answer but I can say which was the most memorable: Purcari’s “Freedom Blend” is a mixture of grapes from Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia with part of the proceeds from sales supporting refugees from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It reflected a friendship between countries and a willingness to use wine for good.  A message for 2023?   

Chile: The ‘X’ Factor?

In these times when many, including those who enjoy a glass of wine, are watching every penny, it’s worth looking in your local supermarket for something from Chile; you’re very likely to find some attractive, very drinkable wines, both red and white, from as little as £6 a bottle.  Major brands such as Concha y Toro and Santa Rita are reliable and generally available and all the familiar grape varieties including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are widely grown.  No wonder Chile is among the 10 largest importers of wine into the UK.

Chile’s vineyards extend more than 850 miles north to south spanning some of the perfect southern hemisphere latitudes for grape growing.  Hot, sunny summers are common but they are offset by the cooling effects of the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west.  As a result, the grapes not only ripen perfectly but they retain the acidity vital for wines that are both refreshing and balanced.

But, for those lucky wine lovers who have a little more to spend, do Chilean wines have that ‘X factor’ that will prompt them to happily pay £10, £15 or even more?  My answer is undoubtedly ‘Yes’ – but you need to be selective.  Take Koyle’s Cerro Basalto Garnatxa (Wine Society, £14.95) for example.   (Garnatxa is the local name for the variety known as Grenache in France or Garnacha in Spain).  This Chilean version is a robust, chunky red with lovely rich flavours of prunes, figs and cooked plums plus a smoky, earthy backdrop that just cries out for intensely flavoured winter casseroles.  We paired it with an oxtail stew but venison or beef cooked in a similar way would work as well.  My one surprise was the level of tannin remaining in a 2018 wine.  Decanting helped, as did the food, but I really wish I’d have left it on the wine rack for a couple of years longer – or bought another bottle to lay down.

South Africa’s Advance

South Africa has been making wine for more than 350 years although, according to someone writing at that time, the earliest wines had ‘revolting sourness’ and were ‘astringent – useful only for irritating the bowels!’  Fortunately, things are much better now but South African wine has had a roller-coaster ride in the intervening period with both quality and popularity at first soaring and then declining badly.

The years of economic isolation in the 2nd half of the 20th century were the final straw and, by the 1990s, when international sanctions on the country were lifted, vineyards and the local wine industry both needed a massive overhaul.  Happily, with the eagerness of young South African winemakers to travel and learn and much-needed foreign investment, some excellent wines are now being produced there.  Well-known varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are all widely planted, but Chenin Blanc, a grape that has been grown in South Africa since the earliest times, still remains their most popular variety.

Chenin is native to France’s Loire Valley (Vouvray is its best-known expression) where, depending on where it is grown and how it is treated can produce dry, medium-dry, sweet or sparkling wines – and of all qualities.  In South Africa, it was historically used as an all-purpose variety producing all types of wines, even ‘South African sherry’.  But, as in the Loire, South Africa have found that, when Chenin is well looked after in the vineyard and carefully handled in the winery, it can produce some excellent wines, particularly from some of the few remaining plots of very old vines.

De Morgenzon’s ‘DMZ’ Chenin Blanc (Majestic, £12.99) is a good place to start.  Initially fresh and peachy on the nose and palette, this quickly opens up with lovely green, grassy, herby flavours (after some discussion, my wife and I both decided on tarragon) and a long dry, clean finish.  Very drinkable on its own as an aperitif but also a fine match for fish, chicken or white meat.  And, unlike the wines from 3 centuries ago, this is neither sour nor astringent!

Italy for Value

Many who enjoy their wine simply ignore Italy; ‘it’s too complicated’, ‘too many unpronounceable names’, ‘too many unfamiliar grape varieties’ are just a few of the comments I’m familiar with – and those are from consumers who have actually thought about Italian wines.  Sadly, many don’t even get that far.  And those that do, usually look to the famous names like Chianti and Barolo, where prices reflect familiarity (and dare I say it, not always quality).

But look further afield and Italy is an excellent source of good value and very drinkable wines.  The South (especially Puglia and the hills above Naples) and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia are particularly worth considering – see some of my earlier blogs for recommendations – but, perhaps even less well-known are the regions overlooking the Adriatic coast.

Marche is home to delicious dry, herby whites made from the local Verdicchio grape as well as attractive fruity reds labelled Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno.  You should find reasonable bottles of any of these in good supermarkets for less than £10.  Marche’s neighbour to the south is Abruzzo, which, to my mind, produces one of the most reliable easy-quaffing reds that I know – Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.  Montepulciano is the grape variety and it looks like a mouthful to pronounce but is actually very easy:  Monty – pull – chee – arno with the stress on the ‘arno’.

The Wine Society list offers an example from Contesa Vigna Corvino, a deeply coloured red with intense aromas and flavours of damsons and blackberries, soft tannins and fair length.  It’s fresh and fruity enough to drink on its own or pair it with grilled lamb chops or Spaghetti Bolognese.  The wine is not especially complex, but very drinkable and a bargain at £8.50.  Look in your local supermarket and you may find a bottle of another producer’s ‘Monty’ for even less money.

And, if you hear someone say that Italian wine is just too complicated, lead them to the nearest wine shop (after getting them to read this blog, of course!)