For Wine Lovers

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ValentineMme Lily Bollinger, former head of the famous Champagne house, was once asked when she drank Champagne.  She replied: when she was happy, when she was sad, sometimes when she was alone, always when she had company and whenever she was hungry or not.  Apart from that, she claimed never to touch it – unless she was thirsty!

Now, although my wife and I enjoy our wine (not necessarily Champagne), we agreed long ago that, unlike Mme Bollinger, we wouldn’t open a bottle every day.  So, unless we’re celebrating a birthday or anniversary or we’re entertaining friends, we usually restrict ourselves to a bottle with our dinners at weekends.  But last Wednesday was different – as you’ll see from the picture above, it was Valentine’s Day, and not just that, it was our 40th Valentine’s Day together (I could suggest we met when we were very, very young but it wouldn’t be true!)  So, forget the fact it was a Wednesday, out came the glasses and a bottle of one of our favourite English fizzes: Camel Valley (Cornwall) Pinot Noir Rosé (Waitrose, £28.99).

I’m not sure if it was the effect of the wine, but we started chatting about why February 14th has become so closely linked with romance and why St Valentine?  We found a number of conflicting explanations in Wikipedia and other sources: I liked the one about the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was connected to fertility, being observed around this time of year.  My wife preferred the quote from Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote that St. Valentine’s Day was the day when every bird chooses his mate.  (Although she did point out that it was a woman’s right to choose her mate!)

Whoever is right, by the 19th century, Valentine’s Day and Valentines cards were well established and the practice, happily, is likely to continue for many years to come.  But, back to wine: our celebratory choice had a delightful deep salmon pink colour with an attractive nose of crushed strawberries and a delicate but mouth-filling mousse.   

As for food matches?  Almost anything, so long as it’s shared with a very good friend or partner!

Happy (belated) Valentines Day

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Sicily Transformed

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Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, holds a key strategic position and so has attracted traders and invaders since ancient times.  Each of these has left their mark, not least where vines and winemaking are concerned.  But sadly, for much of the last century, the island’s focus was firmly on bulk wine and, in 2001, barely 2% of Sicily’s output was of DOC or IGT quality, the remainder just lowly Table Wine.  (Even now, this figure is only 15%).

Yet, change is definitely happening and some of the diverse range of grape varieties planted in former times are, at last getting the recognition they deserve.  To the west of the island, Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto, once used to produce the sweet, fortified Marsala are now turned into crisp, refreshing dry whites which, given Sicily’s latitude, surprisingly outnumber their reds. 

But, for me, it’s the reds that are the main attraction:  on the precarious volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, vineyards are planted at up to 3000 feet above sea level where they produce some delightful wines from the Nerello Mascalese variety with its intense herb and red berry flavours (Wine Society have a good example for £9.50).

Towards the south east coast, the island’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, can be found.  The most famous producer here, COS, has revived the ancient tradition of fermenting the wine in clay amphorae buried in the ground to make some interesting and distinctive wines.  Others, such as Planeta, use more modern techniques. 

Planeta redTheir example, a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola with 40% Frappato (£15.50 from Great Western Wines), undergoes a cool fermentation in large stainless steel tanks.  This preserves the lovely red fruit aromas of the grapes and gives attractive vibrant and fresh bitter cherries on the palate and a good long savoury finish. 

I know £15 isn’t cheap – even though I think it’s worth every penny – (and wines from COS are even dearer), but many Sicilian wines are real bargains, and will remain so until customers recognise the transformation in winemaking on the island in recent years.

A Forgotten Relic

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In my last Bristol Wine Blog, I said that I had just enjoyed a wine from the most westerly Designated wine region in mainland Europe and left you with the problem of working out where that might be.  Congratulations to my fellow blogger ‘intastebudswetrust’ for sending me the correct answer, which, as I’m sure many of you also know (or will have looked up!) is Colares, a short drive west of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, which lies at 9˚ 30′ W.  Sorry no prizes apart from a sense of superiority!

Colares DOC (Portugal’s equivalent of France’s AC) is a tiny (and shrinking) region – less than 20 hectares (50 acres) in total – on a narrow strip of sand dunes overlooking the Atlantic coast.  The sandy soil means that the vine pest, phylloxera, has never invaded the place and so, unlike nearly every other vineyard in the world, the vines are planted directly into the ground rather than being grafted onto a resistant American vine rootstock.  The vast majority of Colares is planted with a local grape variety, Ramisco, that, as far as I can trace, is grown nowhere else in the world. 

On first tasting, the Arenæ Ramisco Colares (Wine Society, £20 for a 500ml bottle) is a little old-fashioned in style. 

ColaresThe colour, a rather pale garnet, reminded me of an aged Barolo, and the nose is an unusual combination of earthy, leathery smells with hints of spices and even of old roses.  It’s lighter bodied than the nose might suggest with bitter cherry and raspberry on the palate, alongside the same floral character noted earlier, and the wine is still quite tannic, even though the bottle I had was from the 2007 vintage, so already more than 10 years old. 

It’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill red wine and certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste but, as a one-off relic of an almost forgotten style, it’s worth a try (although as production is understandably tiny, you may struggle to find it – apart from the Wine Society in the UK, http://www.wine-searcher.com gives a couple of stockists in the USA).

The Fussy Pinot

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Pinot Noir is, undoubtedly, one of the fussiest and most difficult of all the major wine grapes to grow.  Plant it somewhere too cold and it simply won’t ripen, too warm and you get coarse, jammy flavours and the ‘sweet spot’ between these two can be perilously small.  It thrives, of course, in its French homeland, Burgundy, and there are some delightful examples elsewhere, including in Germany, Chile, New Zealand and the cooler parts of the USA (especially Washington State and Oregon but, despite the film ‘Sideways’, less frequently in California in my experience). 

Obviously, you can forget much of Australia – it’s just too hot, although there a few areas where the cold Antarctic winds and tidal currents make the climate far cooler (and so Pinot Noir friendly) than you might expect from the latitude.  Among these are the Great Southern region of Western Australia and Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula.   On the other hand, surprisingly, there is one part of Australia where it’s so cool that growers need to seek out sheltered spots with good exposure to the sun to ripen their Pinot Noir at all.  That is the island state of Tasmania, about 100 miles south of the mainland which is, in fact, on the same latitude as New Zealand’s Marlborough region.

Tasmanian P NoirAnd it’s from Tasmania that Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir (Wine Society, £14.95) comes.  I tasted it recently: a typical Burgundian ‘farmyardy’ nose greets you but this is followed on the palate by lovely raspberry and cranberry flavours, a hint of cinnamon and a really long, crisp finish.  Given the price of good Pinots from elsewhere, I thought this was excellent value for money and an ideal match for our pan fried duck breasts with a honey and thyme sauce.

But, before I make you too hungry, I’ll end with a wine trivia question for you: what is the most westerly Designated wine region (Appellation Contrôlée or local equivalent) in mainland Europe?  I’ve just enjoyed a wine from there and I’ll tell you about it next time.

A ‘Blind’ Challenge

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Two glassesTwo glasses of wine; you’re told that they’re from the same region and the same blend of grapes but nothing else – except that one is from the bargain basement shelf (£4.50), the other more than twice as expensive (£11).  How confident would you be of distinguishing which was which?

That’s the challenge I gave to a group recently during one of the day courses I was running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  How did they do?  All except 1 person got it right!

So, are ‘blind’ challenges easy?  It depends on what you’re being asked to do.  Those where you have to completely identify a wine are difficult – no, let’s be honest – they’re bordering on impossible unless you’re an expert in that particular type of wine.  However, simply having to pick the better quality wine is much easier.  In fact, as I told my group, you need to ignore what the wines taste like and just concentrate on two aspects:

Firstly, which of the wines has greater length in the mouth?  By this, I mean, when you have tasted both and swallowed or spat them out, which has flavours that remain in your mouth for longer?  Better wines usually have more staying power while cheaper ones, however attractive at first, disappear very quickly.

If that doesn’t answer the question, then see how many different flavours you can pick in each wine.  Complexity is always a sign of a good wine and the more different flavours, the better.

By choosing a £4.50 wine as one of the players, I actually made the test much easier than if I had asked the group to compare, say, a £10 and a £20 wine.  In the UK, the way we tax our wines means that, proportionally, a cheap wine bears a higher rate of duty than a more expensive one.  Stripping out this and other non-wine costs (the bottle, transport, retailer’s profit, etc) meant that the wine alone in the dearer bottle was worth not twice the cheaper but closer to 10 times as much.  A tip for us all!

Wine on TV

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Wine Show Series 2(picture: thanks to Channel 5)

With so many of us drinking wine these days, it’s an obvious theme for a TV programme.  Yet, with the occasional notable exception (Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course many years ago still springs to mind), it seems wine is a difficult subject for programme makers to get right.  Understandably keen to attract a wide audience (and the advertising revenue that brings), they concentrate on making their programme entertaining and fun and, as a result, usually produce something that contains little of interest to real wine lovers. 

The 1st series of ‘The Wine Show’, transmitted in 2016 on ITV4, certainly fell into that trap, so I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about its return last week, this time on Channel 5.  My one hope was that the addition of the previously mentioned Jancis Robinson MW to the presentation team would introduce more substance without losing the entertainment.

Sadly, she made little difference.  In the one programme transmitted so far, her input was restricted to choosing between a pair of rosés sourced by fellow presenters, actors Matthew Goode and James Purefoy during a delightful looking lunch overlooking the Provence countryside.  And, indeed, it was the glorious scenery – both in California and in Provence, where the team is based for this series – that was, for me, the best part of the show. 

Far better than co-host Joe Fattorini’s attempt to find a wine for a ‘Sprite’ drinker for whom anything dry – or even medium dry – was instantly rejected.  His search involved a lightning tour of some of California’s wine shops, a fleeting visit to the bar that was used in the film ‘Sideways’ and, for no obvious reason, performing a stand-up routine in a California Comedy Club.  Joe’s wine knowledge is without question but, as for being a comedian, I suggest he sticks with the day job!

I’m certain that, with all the tools available to producers, it is possible to make a wine programme that is both really entertaining and informative.  On the evidence so far, regrettably, it’s not this one.

Have Some Madeira

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“How many wines do you drink in a year?” a friend asked me recently.  I had to confess that I had no idea.  But, thinking about wines that I taste – at events or courses I run or at tastings organised by others – as well as those we drink at home or when we go out to friends or restaurants, I’m sure the number runs into hundreds.  But that’s still only a guess.  So, I’ve decided to try and count them this year!  Watch this space!

The figure is starting to tick up rapidly.  With just 8 days of the year behind us, my wine count already stood at 16, although half of that number was due to a fascinating tasting of ports and Madeiras organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle last week.

The ports were lovely, particularly a 20 year old Fonseca Tawny, but it was the rare chance to taste high quality examples of Madeira’s 4 noble grape varieties together that was the highlight of the evening.

MadeiraFirst was the Sercial, the driest style.  Henriques and Henriques 15 year old, with its attractive almond aromas and tangy, clean palate, would make a perfect aperitif as, indeed, would the next wine tasted, the Verdelho.  More medium dry than dry and a little richer than the Sercial, this still has Madeira’s characteristic acidity but with an attractive smoky edge.

Richer still and decidedly sweet was the Boal (sometimes spelt ‘Bual’) – flavours of raisins, nuts and caramel dominated and a finish that could be measured in minutes rather than seconds – perhaps my own personal favourite.  And then finally there was the wonderfully rich and luscious Malvasia (sometimes labelled ‘Malmsey’) with its palate of figs, prunes, walnuts and caramel; a dessert wine capable of matching the most intense of puddings – or why not just drink it on its own instead?

A word of caution: you’ll sometimes see bottles of Madeira labelled simply with generic terms such as ‘dry’, ‘medium sweet’ or ‘full rich’.  While these are often very drinkable and certainly very reasonably priced, to share the real treat I experienced, you need to look for the grape names I’ve mentioned on the label. 

If all the wines in my count are as good as these, it will, indeed, be a very Happy New Year!