I must start with the recent tragic events in France. Bristol Wine Blog, along with wine lovers everywhere, sends our condolences to the people of France and particularly to those who have lost loved ones.
As a result, I guess the traditional celebrations on the 3rd Thursday in November may have been rather muted this year. The 3rd Thursday in November? It’s Beaujolais Nouveau Day – the day when the first Beaujolais from the current year’s harvest may be released to the public. It’s usually marked in France by fireworks and festivities – and a race to get the first bottles to Paris restaurant tables in time for serving at lunch on the named day. The race extended to London in the 1970s and to the United States, Japan and Australia in the following decade. Lately, Nouveau fever has quietened down a little, but you’ll still see plenty in the shops.
So, should you buy some? If you’ve never tried it, I’d suggest you give it a go, but you’ll find the taste rather different from other wines. A special winemaking process (known as Carbonic Maceration) is used which emphasises the fresh, fruity quality of the Gamay grapes without extracting bitter tannins from the pips and skins. But the rapid fermentation means that the wine has little time to develop any complexity or character; you just get the simple (and often rather acidic) fruit flavours. A colleague of mine once described it memorably as ‘alcoholic Ribena’!
But all Beaujolais isn’t Nouveau! Choose bottles with the word ‘Villages’ on the label or, even better, a named village, and you’re getting something entirely different – and far more interesting. Fleurie, Julienas and Morgon are among the best-known villages – and all are well worth looking out for; as is Moulin-a-Vent. I opened a bottle from there recently (Domaine du Moulin d’Eole, Wine Society, £10.50) and found a wine full of black cherry fruit and sweet spice with very soft tannins, good complexity and great length. It proved an excellent partner to some grilled lamb and was just about as far in character from a Beaujolais Nouveau as it is possible to be.
So, when you see a sign in your local shop saying ‘Beaujolais Nouveau is here’, ignore the Nouveau and buy some real Beaujolais. You won’t be disappointed.
I recently got an email from a colleague: “Lots of champagne on offer at the moment – any decent ones worth buying for Christmas?” It’s a good question and, as most of us like a bargain as well as something sparkling at this time of year, it’s one that many wine lovers will be thinking about over the next few weeks. But Champagne varies enormously in both quality and style – the region comprises more than 85,000 acres (35,000 hectares) of vineyards and over 15000 separate producers making some 200 million bottles a year in total. With all that choice, you need to be very careful about what you buy.
To start with, how much do you want to pay? I’ve seen Champagne from £9.99 (Lidl’s) up to more than £300 for some of the premium cuvées. I haven’t tasted the example from Lidl (nor the £300 one, either!), but if you’re thinking of buying from a supermarket, I do know that Marks & Spencer’s Oudinot (£25) is consistently good and that’s more the sort of price I’d expect to pay for decent Champagne.
Then, what style do you want? Champagnes range from Brut (occasionally Extra-Brut) – the driest -through to Sec and then Demi-Sec (which despite the name ‘half-dry’ is actually quite sweet). For a welcoming glass or an aperitif, I find that one of the drier styles is usually better, but think about your own tastes before deciding.
And finally, does it have to be Champagne? Don’t under-rate Prosecco, Cava or sparkling wines from Australia or New Zealand; there are some really good ones around for £12 – £15 and, for me, these are usually better buys than Champagne at the same price. Or, if you want to pay a bit more, Waitrose have some English Sparkling wines (especially my favourite, Ridgeview) which are regularly winning awards against the best in Champagne! The choice is yours!
If you’d like to know more about wines you might buy for Christmas, why not sign up for my day course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre, Saturday 28 November, 11 am to 4pm? Cost £30 plus a share of the price of the wines opened (maximum £20). Booking is essential: http://www.bristolcourses.com or 0117 9038844.
As I said last time in my Bristol Wine Blog, wine has been made in the Americas for at least 400 years. The earliest settlers brought vines with them to ensure they had wine for their religious services. And one of the most common grapes they imported was a Spanish variety known variously as Païs, Criolla or Mission. Now almost unknown in Spain, it remained quite widely planted in South America, particularly Chile, even as recently as the start of this century. Since then, however, demand for better-known, more commercial varieties has meant that many Païs vines have been dug up and Cabernet or Merlot planted instead.
But the Chilean producer, Undurraga, devised a different plan for a small vineyard of 70 year old Païs vines in the Maule Valley. They took the view that, as these vines had never been irrigated – only receiving water from rainfall – they would have established an extensive root system which would provide valuable nutrition to new young vines. So, instead of grubbing the whole vineyard up and planting in clear earth, they kept the bit below the ground and grafted new Garnacha (Grenache), Cariñena (Carignan) and Monastrell (Mourvedre) vines onto the old Païs root-system.
The resulting wine, made from a blend of the 3 varieties with Garnacha dominant, is a generous, full-bodied, mouth-filling red (yes, it has 14.5% alcohol, but this is well balanced) with lovely soft, ripe red fruit flavours and hints of white pepper. It’s ideal at this time of year with rich winter stews and is available from the Wine Society (£11.50), although supplies are limited as only 3600 bottles could be made.
A very modern style of wine but with more than a nod to Chile’s long winemaking history.
We talk about certain countries being part of the ‘New World’ of wine. But, in this context, ‘new’ is a relative term; wine making was fairly widespread in South America from the mid-1500s, began in the United States in the early 1600s and in South Africa about 50 years later. Even the newest of the New World countries – Australia and New Zealand – have been making wine for around 200 years. OK, that’s recent when compared to the 2000 years and more in parts of Europe, but it’s long enough for some New World producers to have established reputations stretching back over many generations.
Take Australia’s Tahbilk estate, for example. Established by a successful gold miner in the Nagambie Lakes area of Central Victoria in 1860, it was sold in the 1920s and has been in the same family ever since with the 5th generation now involved in the business. The original cellars are still in use and the property is classified by the National Trust of Australia. I’ve long been a fan of their beautifully fragrant, creamy, full-bodied Marsanne, a white wine made from a variety originally imported from France’s southern Rhône Valley (although some of Tahbilk’s Marsanne vines are now far older than any surviving in the grape’s native home).
But, in the 1990s, they planted some Viognier, another variety from the same region which, judged by a recent bottle I opened (available from the Wine Society, £9.50), is obviously also thriving. The first impression is quite floral with hints of pink grapefruit, but then the lovely, almost-oily texture and the distinctive Viognier apricot flavours show through. There’s some sweet spices (cinnamon, cloves) in there, too, and the wine finishes quite long and zesty. Food matches? It’s quite a full flavoured wine, so choose something that won’t be overpowered – and if your dish includes some of those spices, then you could just have found a perfect match.
The year moves into November, the leaves are falling and, across the northern hemisphere, most of the grape harvests are over. So what can we expect from Europe and North America’s 2015 wines? We’re not going to see many of them on our shelves for a while (with the exception of Beaujolais Nouveau, which I’ll be blogging about in a couple of weeks), but a look at the harvest reports gives us a clue. And the news, almost without exception is good.
Let’s start in France. Burgundy and the Rhône enjoyed 2 hot, dry months in June and July and, following a slightly cooler August, were picking healthy, ripe grapes in September. Bordeaux was similar – sunnier and drier than usual – and harvests there began in mid-September with most producers very upbeat about the outcome. In Spain, they’re already talking about the best vintage since 2005 and across in Portugal the crop looks good enough for us to see the first general declaration of a port vintage since the marvellous 2011 as well as some great wines.
Much of Italy suffered from record breaking July temperatures and lower than average rainfall, resulting in lower yields and smaller grapes, so, not a bumper year for volumes but the flip side of this is that producers are saying that there’s a really good concentration of flavours in the grapes suggesting high quality wines.
Over in California, the harvest was also a small one with reports of crops often 20% less than normal. Again, drought and high temperatures were the causes and many growers completed picking by the end of September – remarkably early. Nevertheless, most are fermenting good, fully ripe fruit with the expectation of excellent wines.
Of course, we can’t know how the wines will turn out until we taste them, but with generally favourable weather conditions right across Europe and North America, it looks very hopeful that the wines from 2015 will be well worth waiting for when they start appearing on our shelves in the New Year.
Alsace is like nowhere else in France. Just look at the architecture or listen to the local dialect; you could easily believe you were in Germany rather than in France. And the wines, too: made from Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Sylvaner – grapes widely grown in Germany but rarely found elsewhere in France. Even the wine bottles themselves, with their distinctive flute shape and often labelled by grape variety rather than village of origin, could be mistaken for German. Yet Alsace (since the 2nd World War, at least) is firmly part of France (though many locals would say they’re from Alsace first and France second).
Alsace has a long wine tradition; indeed, 2 of the largest and best-known Alsace producers, Hugel and Trimbach, have each been making wine for almost 400 years and both remain family-run. Sometimes a large operation means mediocrity; not so here. Wherever you look in either of their ranges, from their entry level wines right up to their wonderful single vineyard offerings, you’ll find attractive wines – and, that’s true generally in Alsace. Despite many difficult times in the 20th century, the region has fought back to produce some of the most consistently reliable – and delicious – wines around today. And you won’t need a second mortgage to afford them.
Take Trimbach’s Cuvée Trimbach (Wine Society, £9.25) for example. This crisp, fresh blend of sylvaner and muscat starts citrusy, but then hints of rose petals kick in giving a lovely fragrant dry white wine – not off-dry as it would be if made in Germany. A wine light enough to be enjoyable as an aperitif, but with a certain richness that would make it an ideal accompaniment to delicate fish dishes.
You may think the bottles and the grape varieties look Germanic but the Alsace wine tradition is undoubtedly French: ferment the wines dry, giving them a lovely richness and food-friendliness. They are widely available – in supermarkets, too. Do give them a try.
You’ve enjoyed a glass of wine in a pub or bar. Can you legally drive home immediately afterwards? How about if you’ve had a pint of beer instead? The answer might surprise you. Read on!
Many (including me) would recommend not drinking at all before driving, but the legal limit in Britain equates to about 2 units of alcohol for the average person; so long as you stay below that figure, you won’t end up in Court. But how much exactly is 2 units?
I’ve noticed in a number of restaurants and bars recently that they are showing the percentage of alcohol in the drinks on their lists, a move that I strongly approve of, but knowing that your wine is 13.5% (or even 14.5% as in the picture above), or your beer 4% doesn’t actually tell you how many units you’ll be drinking. And, in my experience, most drinkers under-estimate: I regularly ask people attending my wine courses how many units of alcohol in a bottle of wine. Replies usually range between 3 and 6, whereas the correct answer is typically around 10.
If you’ve got a calculator handy, it’s quite easy to work out: let’s go back to the question I asked earlier about the glass of wine or the pint of beer. A standard glass of wine in a pub is 0.175 litres (you might see it written as 175ml, but it’s the same thing). If the wine is 13.5%, then the number of units is 0.175 multiplied by 13.5 which equals 2.3. As for the beer, a pint is 0.568 litres; at 4% alcohol, that works out, again, close to 2.3 units. So, in either case, you’re above Britain’s drink-drive limit.
One tip that might help: you typically lose 1 unit of alcohol per hour so, if you’ve had just the one glass, sitting down for half an hour afterwards with a coffee or walking round for a while may make the difference. And, don’t forget, as it’s coming up to Christmas, the police will be more vigilant with the breathalysers. If you’ve had a drink, plan to stay overnight or get a taxi home. Losing your licence is not the Christmas present you want!