New and Novel

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2016-09-26-08-36-18There’s a new kid in town.  Well, to be precise, in Bath, a few miles down the road.  And that’s where I went recently for the launch party of Novel Wines, a new independent wine merchant specialising, as their publicity suggests, in undiscovered wine.  Or, to put it another way, in countries that might not be top of everyone’s list.

This, to me, should be the role of merchants such as Novel Wines:  to source interesting bottles from passionate, artisan winemakers whose output often is too small for the high street chains or supermarkets.  And, because these independents can take time to get to know their customers and their preferences, they can hand-sell wines outside the mainstream that would otherwise be passed by.   As you might guess, I’m a big fan of these small-scale businesses.  We’re lucky in Bristol with Corks, Grape and Grind, Clifton Cellars and DBM Wines (and a few others) already well established – and, from first experience, Novel Wines look to be a worthy addition.

Their main focus is on Central and South-Eastern Europe with interesting selections from Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, but they’ve also found a few real exotics: wines from Thailand, Japan and India, for example.  And, they’ve got one of the best ranges of English and Welsh wines I’ve seen anywhere.

With over 100 wines open for tasting at their launch party, it was impossible to try everything (although, no doubt, some tried!), but, of those I tasted, my top 3 were Tibor Gal’s lovely red-fruited Titi Bikaver (£12.90) from Hungary, the black fruits and spice of Vina Koslovic’s Teran from Croatia (£11.90) and the soft, harmonious Tower of Dracula Feteasca Neagra – nice wine, shame about the name! – from Romania (£12.50).

If you’d like to give these, or any of their others a try, you can contact them on www.novelwines.co.uk or on Facebook or Twitter.

 

 

White Wine from Red Grapes?

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2016-09-07-12-06-12We’re all familiar with wines made from Merlot – not surprisingly, as it’s the 2nd mostly widely planted wine grape variety in the world after Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s, perhaps, best known as one of the key red wine grapes of Bordeaux, but at least a dozen countries have major plantings of the variety and, despite the views of one of the principals in the film “Sideways”, it’s often responsible for some excellent red wines.

Yet, as I mentioned last time in my Bristol Wine Blog, in Switzerland’s Ticino region, where Merlot represents 80% of the plantings, they don’t just use it for red wines in a number of different styles, but also for a little rosé and even some white wines.  So how does that work?

Pick up any wine grape and squeeze it and, with very few exceptions, the juice will be colourless (even if the skin is black).  So, by separating the juice quickly from the skins and fermenting it alone, you can easily make white wine from dark skinned grapes.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is Champagne where 2 of the grapes used – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – are both dark-skinned.  But, leave the juice from black grapes in contact with the skins for a few hours and you get rosé, for a few days or longer and the result is red wine.  So, in theory, white Cabernet Sauvignon or white Shiraz is quite possible – although I’ve never seen one – but white Merlot: in the Ticino, certainly!

And the taste?  The white Merlots we had were refreshing, pleasant quaffing wines; interesting as novelty value, but no more.  Clearly, the character of Merlot comes from the skin-contact and the red wine making process.  But, if that’s the grape variety you grow, it makes sense to make the most of it.

By the way, if you’re wondering about red Chardonnay or Riesling, don’t!  They’re both light-skinned varieties, so there’s nothing to tint the juice red.

Not Another Wine Festival!

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We’ve just come back from a short break in Lugano and our visit coincided with ‘La Bacchica’, the local wine festival organised to celebrate the grape harvest.  Funnily enough, last year we were in Saumur for a few days at around the same time of year and the same thing happened!  My wife is starting to think that I’m getting inside information!  But, honestly, the first I knew of either festival was when we arrived at our destination – although, of course, it’s quite natural for any wine growing community to want to mark the end of a year’s hard work.

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Lugano may not be that well-known as a place for wine but this is the heart of Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Ticino region and wine is as much a part of the culture here as it is over the border in Italy.  Even so, I’ve rarely tasted anything from the region – or, indeed from any part of Switzerland (very little is exported) – so some careful research was needed: what to look out for, the names of the best producers – and no less important: what to avoid!

The first thing I discovered was that 80% of the plantings in the Ticino are of the same grape variety.  And not, as I might have guessed, one of the Italian natives such as Sangiovese or Nebbiolo; instead, to my surprise, it was Merlot.  Made in all styles from light and fruity for easy quaffing through to more serious with oak-ageing and suitable for laying down, occasionally blended with other varieties but more commonly, just on its own.  And, if you were looking for something different, there was Merlot Rosé, even some white – about which more next time.

And how about the quality?  Generally high, although, sadly, with prices to match – inevitable, perhaps, when growing grapes in such a mountainous (but beautiful) area.

The Latest ‘In’ Variety

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I’ve blogged before about how different grape varieties can be subject to changing fashion.  For example, Chardonnay, has switched from being all the rage a few years ago to membership of the ‘anything but’ club today.  On the other hand, Cabernet Sauvignon seems to have been ‘in’ for as long as I can remember while Riesling, despite the best efforts of winemakers and show judges, seems to be forever ‘out’.  And all for no obvious reason – it just seems to depend on public perception at the time.

So, what’s ‘in’ at the moment?  White varieties seem more prone to fashion than red.  Sauvignon Blanc, especially from New Zealand, is certainly on a high and Pinot Grigio, too – although unless the quality of much of the latter improves, I predict its fate is likely to follow that of Liebfraumilch before long.

You can usually spot grapes that are becoming fashionable by an increase in the regions in which they’re planted.  Viognier, for example, has spread rapidly in recent years from one small corner of France to California and Australia.  And now the process is being repeated with the hitherto little-known central European variety, Grüner Veltliner.  It’s a variety I’ve enjoyed for some time – its lovely rich and slightly peppery flavours go really well with full flavoured and quite spicy dishes but it wasn’t until recently that I’d seen an example from anywhere other than Austria or Hungary.

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Yet, there it was on the shelf at Majestic Wine: a Grüner Veltliner from the excellent Waimea Estate in Nelson at the top of New Zealand’s South Island (£9.95).  And it seems to have made the transition well; all the typical flavours of the grape were there: peaches, apricots and gentle spice, beautifully fresh and clean and with hints of white pepper on a long finish.  Delicious!  Is this the latest ‘in’ grape?  It surely deserves to be.

The Wine Rivers of Europe

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Have you ever thought how many of the main wine regions of Europe are close to rivers?  The Rhone, Mosel and Douro Rivers are all so closely linked to wine that they have wine regions named after them.  The Loire has vineyards along more than half of its length, the Rhine features in a number of German regional wine names and Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rioja all have rivers running through or close to them – the Garonne and Dordogne, Saone and Ebro, respectively.  And there are many others. 

This is no coincidence: rivers affect climate, they can excavate deep valleys with steep sides ideal for vineyards, they provide water for irrigation and, in centuries past when road transport was difficult, they provided the easiest way to transport heavy cargoes such as wine.  In these and so many other ways rivers have been helpful either to grape growing (and so to winemaking) or, perhaps, more importantly, in ensuring that a particular wine can reach its market.

And it’s this fascinating subject – “The Wine Rivers of Europe” – that I’ve chosen for a series of talks I’m running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre this autumn. 

SL Brochure 2016Each week, I’ll concentrate on a particular river and we’ll talk about (and taste, of course!) the wines that can be found along its length.  Provisionally, the talks will comprise the Loire, Rhine, Danube, Rhone and Douro.  They will run for 5 consecutive Wednesday evenings from 7pm to 9pm starting 2nd November.  The cost for the whole series is £60 plus a share of the cost of the wines tasted (which will be limited to a maximum of £8 per person per week).  Booking is essential as places will be very limited and can be made online at www.bristolcourses.com or by phone on 0117 903 8844.

If this doesn’t appeal or you can’t make the dates, have a look at the same website for some of the one day Saturday courses I’ll be running at Stoke Lodge during the first half of 2017. Hope to meet some of you there!

Another Sauvignon

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We’re all familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, but there are a number of other grape varieties with the word ‘Sauvignon’, or something very similar, in their names:

Savagnin, for example, is native to the Jura in eastern France and is used for the strange, sherry-like Vin Jaune – about as far from a Sauvignon Blanc as you can find.  For something rather closer in style, look to Sauvignonasse (also known as Sauvignon Vert and, in Italy, as Friulano).  This used to be grown widely in Bordeaux but, today, you’re more likely to come across it in Chile or Argentina.  Easily confused with Sauvignon Blanc in the vineyard, it rarely has as much aromatic character when vinified and often becomes quite flabby with high levels of alcohol.  Watch out for bottles labelled simply ‘Sauvignon’ without the word ‘Blanc’ following, particularly cheaper examples; they usually signify, at best, a blend of the two varieties and hardly ever make exciting drinking.

Surprisingly, despite the similar name and appearance, Sauvignonasse is not thought to be related to Sauvignon Blanc, but there is an interesting and most under-rated variety that certainly is: Sauvignon Gris.  Also known as Sauvignon Rose due to its distinctive pink-coloured skin, it’s originally from France (Bordeaux and the Loire) but has found its way (in small quantities) to South America and New Zealand where it is made into some highly drinkable wines.

Chile Sauv GrisOne of my favourite examples is from Leyda’s Kadun vineyard in Chile (Great Western Wine, £11.95).  This is to the south of the capital, Valparaiso, and planted in the 1990s just 12km (8 miles) from the coast to take advantage of the cooling ocean breezes.  These are ideal conditions for aromatic varieties like Sauvignon Gris (there’s plenty of Blanc planted there, too) and this wine is wonderfully crisp and intense with delicious pink grapefruit flavours and a long spicy finish.  Yes, there’s some similarity to Sauvignon Blanc, but this is distinctive enough to have both on your wine rack.

Wines for Summer

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“Can we have a tasting of wines for summer drinking?” a client asked me recently. Of course!  It gave me the chance to concentrate on refreshing, easy-drinking bottles – perfect for that picnic or barbie – or just for drinking chilled on their own in the garden.  And, because wines like these focus more on enjoyment than on deep appreciation of their finer points, they’re not usually that expensive; in fact, I bought all the wines in Majestic and none cost more than £8 (based on their offers for mixed cases of at least 6 bottles).

Summer WinesWe started with a Vinho Verde from northern Portugal: Quinta de Azevedo (£6.99) is a delightfully crisp and fresh white made from a blend of little-known local grapes.  To follow, something more floral and fragrant: Mayu’s dry Pedro Ximenez (PX) from Chile (same price).  This wine surprised me when I first tasted it as PX is more commonly found in Spain’s sherry region, where it’s mainly used for sweetening, yet, here, it shows a completely different (and most attractive) side to its character.

I can drink rosé at any time of year but there’s no denying that sales peak in the summer and so it was an obvious choice for this tasting.  I took along a couple: The Ned Pinot Rosé from New Zealand (£7.99) is an old favourite of mine – full of lovely summer berry fruit flavours – while Cune’s Rioja Rosado (a bargain at just £5.99) is simply a lighter, more delicate version of a young red from the region.

In warm weather, you’re usually looking for something you can serve cool and, of course, you can’t chill red wine – or can you?  I wouldn’t suggest putting your best claret in the fridge (but that’s hardly a wine for a summer picnic, anyway), but lighter reds such as Beaujolais or Valpolicella are actually better for a half hour chilling.  The same applies to Allegrini’s Tenuta di Naiano Bardolino (£7.49), from the next door region to Valpolicella, with its tangy flavours of bitter cherries.

And, finally, to barbecues.  An Australian Shiraz would be the choice of many – and I wouldn’t argue, but why not try a French example of the same grape?  Domaine les Yeuses ‘Les Épices’ Syrah (£7.99) is my choice – similar spicy, peppery flavours and lovely violet aromas.

So there we have it – my selection of wines for summer.  The group I ran the tasting for enjoyed them all, although the Vinho Verde just edged it in the final vote.  Try them – I hope you like them, too.