Meet Franc from Friuli

There are a number of grape varieties with ‘Cabernet’ in their name – Cabernet Sauvignon, the best known and most widely planted, is actually a cross (probably some time in the 19th century) between Sauvignon Blanc and another Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, hence the name.  All 3 are found in the vineyards of Bordeaux, so I can only guess what Franc and Sauvignon were up to a couple of hundred years ago!

Cabernet Franc is usually part of a blend in Bordeaux, often included to add attractive freshness and a certain leafy or herby character to the wine, but look further north to France’s Loire region and you find 100% Franc wines in ACs such as Chinon and Bourgueil – and very enjoyable many of them are, too.  But I’ve never associated the grape with Italy until I saw a bottle on the shelves of Bristol independent merchant, Grape and Grind.  The wine is from Tenute Tomasella who grows the variety in vineyards in the very far north-east of the country, in the Friuli region, close to the border with Slovenia.  It looks very appealing in the glass: ‘dressed in cardinal purple’ according to the back label and is a real bargain at £12.99.  Lovely fresh red fruits – cherries and plums – and a real lightness of touch, helped, no doubt, by only 12½% alcohol.

It seems strange to be saying ‘only’ 12½%; at one time that would have been considered a medium to high alcohol level, but not these days.  A combination of global warming and better vineyard management techniques means that grapes can now be picked with much higher sugar levels than was once the case and that translates directly into higher alcohol.  Of course, the public appetite for such wines (encouraged by a certain American writer) has contributed, too.  As a result, 13½%, 14% and even more is now the norm.  That works for some wines but others become rather unbalanced with the alcohol overpowering the fruit. 

The more moderate level on the Cabernet Franc was quite noticeable (and very pleasant) – yes, a delicate wine, but not thin and really flavoursome.

Perhaps other producers should take notice.

Fish and Sweet Wine?

As regular readers will know, my wife and I enjoy good food as well as good wine – and we like cooking (just as well in these days when eating out is so restricted).  One of our favourite recipe books (one of many) is “Fruits of the Sea” by TV Chef Rick Stein (BBC Publications).  Despite being a professional chef, most of his recipes are quite straightforward to follow and we particularly like the way he combines ingredients that most of us wouldn’t consider together. For example, a fresh ginger and sweet Monbazillac wine sauce to accompany brill, john dorey (or turbot if you’re celebrating).  Fish and sweet wine are certainly not an obvious pairing but, in this case, they complement each other perfectly.

One advantage of the dish is that the recipe only calls for a small glass of the wine, leaving the rest for the chef (and me, the chef’s mate) to enjoy with our desserts.  We didn’t actually use Monbazillac; Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ Muscat de St John de Minervois (a bargain at £5.25 a half bottle) is an excellent substitute with similar levels of sweetness and richness.

St John de Minervois is a tiny enclave in the far north of the much larger Appellation Contrôlée (AC) area of Minervois, in the south of France’s Languedoc region.  Minervois itself is famous for robust, hearty reds but St John, with vineyards in the foothills of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain), has a separate AC for sweet wines made from the delightfully aromatic Muscat grape.  Here, the wines are allowed to start fermenting and then, before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the fermentation is stopped by adding a slug of grape brandy (the same method used for making port).  This kills the yeast (which dies happily, of course!!) and leaves a delicious (15% alcohol) wine with the Muscat variety’s trademark grapey sweetness.

So, that was our dessert wine sorted.  To partner Rick Stein’s delicious fish dish, I’d had a lovely Condrieu – a full bodied white from near Lyons in France – tucked away under the stairs just waiting for the right moment.  The two would have made a lovely combination but sadly, I’d waited too long and the wine was rather past its best – a lesson learnt for the future.

2021: Looking Forward

Let me begin my first Bristol Wine Blog of 2021 by wishing you all a very Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year. 

For both my wife, Hilary, and me, 2021 is a year of ‘big’ birthdays.  We’d obviously like to celebrate in some way but decisions about where and how are on hold for a while.  We’re waiting and hoping that the anti-Covid vaccines are rolled out and are successful even against the newly discovered variants.  Once that happens, planning can begin but I suspect that day may be a few months away yet and all we can do at present is dream.

Talking of dreams, one awful nightmare has just been avoided thanks to the last-minute trade deal agreed with the European Union (EU).   Brexit is a topic I’ve tried to ignore here – I have my views but I know it’s a divisive subject and this is a wine blog, not a political one – but it is clear that ‘No deal’ would have meant the imposition of tariffs on many goods.  Of particular interest to this blog is the major price rise that would have affected all alcoholic drinks.  As it is, we will have to wait and see what effect our new relationship with the EU may have on wine prices and supply.  I’ll be watching the wine shelves carefully and it’s a topic I may be returning to during the year as things become clearer.

But, for now, that’s just one of many uncertainties as we start the New Year.  How long will the restrictions on our movement due to Covid remain, when will we be able to go out to restaurants or have friends round for a meal and when will we be able to travel again?  All questions for the future but, in the meantime, it’s all about taking care and looking out for ourselves and others.  Happy New Year.

2020: Looking Back

In a Blog Looking Back on the wine world in 2020, it would be easy to focus solely on the problems. It has, after all, been a really strange and unsettling year – a year like no other I can remember. And I guess that many similar reviews will use pictures like the one above as the year’s defining image.
Although the Covid virus has caused great difficulties in the wine world, especially in getting people to do the harvest during lockdowns and a significant drop in demand, this hasn’t been the only problem the industry has had to face this year. I’ve blogged twice in the last 12 months about dreadful wildfires that have devasted parts of Australia and California, in both cases having a major impact on wine regions. Add in severe droughts in places and damaging late-spring frosts and 2020 is a year that many in the wine industry will want to forget.
But wine producers are, by nature and necessity, a resilient and resourceful group and I’ve read that plans are already being formulated to rebuild fire-damaged wineries and replant vineyards. Some may take the opportunity to grow different varieties – those that are more heat and drought resistant, perhaps. Others may choose the currently fashionable option of installing earthenware amphorae to replace some, or all, of their barrels. It may take a little time but new and exciting tastes and styles may emerge as a result of this difficult year.
And, just this last week, we have seen the first anti-Covid vaccines being administered. Let’s hope these prove as successful as they have appeared in trials and that 2021 will be a year when (with care) we can get back to doing some of the things we have missed in 2020. For me, that would include going on holiday, eating out in restaurants and running wine courses.
How about you?

Two Good Reads

Looking for a gift for a wine lover this year? Then 2 recently published books – one on the Wines of England and Wales, the other on the Wines of Portugal – may be the answer.
Both books start with the historical background to their wines, followed by a look at the key grape varieties grown and main regions of production and include a selection of producers to note. Both also highlight the major changes experienced in recent decades, not just to the styles of wines produced but also to the 2 wine industries themselves.
But despite these similarities, I suspect that the books will appeal to rather different audiences.
Oz Clarke’s “English Wine – From Still to Sparkling” (Pavilion Books, £16.99) relates his personal experiences visiting his favourite vineyards and winemakers throughout the country. An underlying theme of the book is the rise and rise in sparkling wine production in England and Wales this century and the reasons behind it. In short, England’s cool climate is ideally suited to making fizz and many of our vineyards are situated on the same seam of chalk that underlies the Champagne vineyards. So, with similar temperatures to Champagne and the same soil, it’s a no-brainer to plant the same grape varieties – mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and make the same kind of wine. And we’ve been very successful at it!
Clarke’s book is a much-needed update on the rapidly changing English and Welsh wine scene and is a most enjoyable and approachable read.
Richard Mayson’s “The Wines of Portugal” (Infinite Ideas, £30) is far more in-depth – I might say almost encyclopaedic. The writer has been immersed in Portuguese wine (not literally, I hope!) for his entire adult life and it is clear that he is writing about a country he loves – and has loved since his first visit as a 10 year old child.
Portugal’s wine transformation began when they joined the European Union in 1986 prompting them to introduce a proper quality hierarchy, mirrored on France’s Appellation Contrôlée system, across the whole industry. As a result, wines from the Douro, Dão, Bairrada, Vinho Verde and others, historically variable in quality, were all spurred on to improve and are now worth their place on every wine rack. Even the previously unexciting Alentejo in the south of the country is now regularly producing attractive, excellent value for money bottles.
For lovers of Portuguese wine or for anyone who wants to get to know the many delicious wines of that country better, this book is a must-buy.
Whichever you choose, I wish you happy reading (accompanied by an appropriate glass, of course!)

Australia: An Eye-Opener

Since the turn of the century, wine lovers in the UK have bought more wine from Australia than from any other country. The combination of approachable, attractive, fruity flavours, well-known and reliable brand names and frequent special offers is clearly a winning formula.
So, why don’t I mention Australian wines more often in Bristol Wine Blog? It’s the same reason that my wife and I go against the trends and drink so little from there (apart from the occasional Clare or Eden Valley Riesling or Margaret River Cabernet). It’s certainly not any anti-Australia bias on our part – my aunt emigrated from the UK and lived there happily for many years and became a citizen. No, it’s simply that the wine world is so big and diverse these days; there’s just so much to taste and try.
But, having said that, I really should buy Australian wine more often. It’s a vast country; virtually the same distance east to west as from Lisbon to Istanbul or from coast to coast in the USA and with so many different soils and climates. That means opportunities for an incredible range of different wine styles. One of Australia’s major producers, De Bortoli, are focussing on this diversity with their ‘Regional Classics’ range and I was drawn to a bottle of Tumbarumba Chardonnay (Majestic, £13.99, when you buy a mixed case of 6 or more).
The Tumbarumba vineyards lie in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains west of Canberra at an altitude of around 550m above sea level (1700 ft). This makes it a relatively cool area – indeed, many of the grapes from here are turned into sparkling wines. Not this Chardonnay, though. Initially quite spicy and oaky on the nose, the palate is deliciously fruity with lime and peach and very delicate oak – not at all intrusive, just adding a subtle hint of cinnamon and some breadth to the taste.
So, for those who look at an Australian Chardonnay and think ‘big, woody and overpowering’, this bottle from De Bortoli will be a real eye-opener. And proof that I really should be blogging about Australian wines more often.

2nd Wines: the Smart Choice

After 2 Blogs about the red wines of Burgundy, I think it’s time to move on to France’s other flagship region, Bordeaux.  There are a few similarities between the 2 – stratospheric prices for the top wines and an active investment market among them – but many differences which make it easier to find something drinkable at an affordable – if, perhaps, not exactly every day – price.

One of these differences is size: Bordeaux produces more than 3 times as much wine as Burgundy in a typical year and there’s nothing like the same fragmentation of vineyards that causes the supply problems in Burgundy.  This is due to the fact that many of Bordeaux’s estates are now owned by companies rather than individuals, easing inheritance problems, plus the Bordeaux Appellation system is rather simpler, only dividing down as far as villages, rather than identifying vineyards as they do in Burgundy.

Despite those advantages, you can still easily pay £50 – £100 for well-known wines, but, if you avoid the big names and choose carefully, there is some value available.   As I found recently when I opened an attractive red from the excellent 2010 vintage with the benefit of a good few years of barrel and bottle maturity behind it.

Moulins de Citran (Majestic, £16.99 as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles) is quite lean and austere in a typical Bordeaux way but has good blackcurrant and raspberry fruit and some cedary spice and leather flavours.  There’s fair length, too, and, despite its age, it has a good few years of happy drinking ahead of it.

So, why is this under £20 and not £50?  Firstly, it is not from one of the prestigious villages – it’s simply AC Haut-Medoc but, perhaps, more importantly, it’s the estate’s ‘2nd wine’.  Many Bordeaux properties are large enough to make 2 or even 3 different wines each year.  Their best grapes from their oldest wines will go into their top wine (which would be named ‘Chateau de Citran’ in this case), but that still leaves good grapes from, perhaps, younger vines or vines in less good parts of the vineyard spare.  These will go into the 2nd wine – still made by the same winemaker in the same winery but often sold at less than half the price of the main Chateau wine.

So, if you love Bordeaux wines but don’t want to pay too much, then 2nd wines of good estates in less fashionable parts of the region are a really smart choice.

Burgundy: Your Feedback

My Blog last time, “Burgundy: A Nightmare”, provoked several comments, thank you to those who did.  Let’s look at what you had to say.

Firstly, why didn’t I name the wine I tasted: “you tell us the wines you like, why didn’t you ‘name and shame’ this one?”  It was something I thought about while I was writing the Blog but I decided against.  I had no reason to criticise the producer, who is well-respected, nor the – usually reliable -supplier.  And, the wine itself was well-made; it was just that I found it disappointing for the money.  Yet, it was the sort of price you should expect to pay for that type of wine based on the supply and demand situation I mentioned last time.  At half the price, it would have been a ‘recommend’.

An interesting suggestion was that wine might have been slightly ‘corked’.  Corkiness occurs when wine is in contact with a cork that has been affected by a fungus which, in severe cases, produces a nasty, musty, mouldy smell and taste in the wine.  But, when the problem is more minor, you don’t get these strong, pervasive smells and flavours, just a dumbing down of the aromas and tastes.  A possibility here but the cork on this bottle was one of these new high-tech versions that is supposed to eliminate 99.99% of cork problems.   

So, should we, as one reader commented, “simply leave red Burgundy to the wealthy”?  It’s a good question!  There’s certainly better value elsewhere for Pinot Noir lovers – New Zealand, for example.  But, when my wife and I visited Burgundy on a wine tour a few years ago, we tasted some lovely bottles that I’d be reluctant to ignore altogether.  Perhaps reserve them for very special occasions?

And, finally, does the same ‘nightmare’ tag apply to white Burgundy, too?  Happily, not to the same extent.  Part of the reason is that white Burgundies are made from Chardonnay which is a whole lot easier to grow than the Pinot Noir used in the reds.  So, although the top wines are similarly pricey, further down the spectrum there is some enjoyable drinking to be found at more reasonable prices.  Check the supermarkets’ ‘own-label’ ranges.  For around a tenner, many will have a wine they’ve bought in from the very reliable ‘Caves de Buxy’ (check the small print on the label) or try one of the 2 bottles pictured above from Majestic for the same price (when bought as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles).  Don’t expect great complexity but any of these should be very, very drinkable and be perfect antidotes to nightmares!

Burgundy: A Nightmare

Red wines from France’s Burgundy region are among the most sought-after and expensive wines in the world. The price for a single bottle of one of the top names can easily run into 4 figures. Whether such a price can possibly be justified, I leave to you, but many of these wines are made in very limited quantities and, as I learnt in my first Economics lesson at school many years ago, when demand exceeds supply, prices go up. It doesn’t help either that the top wines are bought, not just for drinking, but as investments to re-sell.
The problem of limited supply isn’t just restricted to the trophy bottles, it occurs throughout Burgundy. To explain why, we need to look back into history.
Wine has been made in the region since Roman times and, over those nearly 2000 years, the very best vineyards have been identified and classified. This has given Burgundy the most precise and complicated Appellation Contrôlée regime in the whole of France. The best sites in some villages are designated ‘Grand Cru’ followed by ‘Premier Cru’. Below these come wines from lesser sites in these villages and from less prestigious villages. Finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, you have generic ‘Bourgogne’. By fragmenting the area in this way, you have very limited supplies of any particular wine apart from, perhaps, the generic bottles.
But, it’s worse than that! The region’s vineyards have also suffered from the Napoleonic system of inheritance under which assets were divided equally between the male children. This resulted, over the years, in vineyard holdings becoming smaller and smaller. In many cases, you find adjacent rows of vines being owned by different people – some of whom will be excellent growers and winemakers, others less good. You can see the effect of this in the picture above (taken in spring) where some strips are clearly more advanced than others.
All this means that buying Burgundy, particularly red Burgundy, can be a nightmare. Not only do you need to know one site from another but also, who are the best growers. Added to this, often quite simple bottles aren’t that cheap and, as I found recently, despite my knowledge, anyone can find themselves disappointed. I opened a village-level red with our dinner a few nights ago; it was OK – a bit of cherry fruit and some spice but, at rather more than £20, I really expected a lot more and, as my wife correctly remarked, if this had been a New Zealand Pinot Noir at that price, it would have been something truly special.