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.

 

 

The Wine Olympics

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Olympics logoWith the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio nearing its close, I couldn’t help noticing how many wine producing countries were prominent in the Medals Table. Does this reveal some hitherto undiscovered benefit of wine? Perhaps not!  Indeed, I suspect that, for most of the competitors, wine is nowhere on their training schedule.

But, it did start me thinking about an Olympics for wine.  In fact, there are already wine competitions in virtually every wine region but few that could truly be called Olympic in scale; I know of only 2: the International Wine Challenge and the Decanter Annual World Wine Awards.  In both, thousands of wines are tasted by panels of expert judges with their favourites awarded medals.  But, wine is a very personal thing; I always wonder whether a different judge on a different day might produce a different medal winner.

But, like judges in, say, diving or gymnastics, there are certain basic principles to follow.  For me, these were best summarised by Jane Hunt MW with the acronym BLIC: Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity.  A high quality wine needs to be balanced – no one component should dominate, so alcohol, acidity, fruit, tannin should all harmonise.  It should be long in the mouth; after you’ve swallowed or spit out, the longer the flavours remain with you, the better the wine.  Intensity is important, too – a wine may be subtle but the flavours should be definite and pronounced, not wishy-washy.  And finally, you should look for complexity – if you can only taste one flavour, the wine is unlikely to be great; a favourite phrase of mine to describe a good wine is that ‘there’s a lot going on’ – many different flavours and each time you taste, you discover something new.

So, if you get all of those, the wine might be worthy of a medal.  But do you like it?  That’s another question entirely!

The Place for Syrah

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Millions of holidaymakers will speed south through France on the Autoroute du Soleil this summer heading for the Mediterranean resorts and beyond.  Few, I suspect, will realise (or even care) just how close they are passing to some of the world’s most famous vineyards.  Those of Burgundy are generally just out of sight from the road but, if you stop a little later in the journey, things are very different.  From several of the picnic sites on the stretch between Vienne and Valence, the spectacularly steep and rocky vineyards of the northern Rhône can be seen clearly on the far bank of the river.

Your first thought might be to question why anyone would choose to plant vines in such difficult terrain.  The answer: to give the grapes the best chance of ripening.  The majority of the vines here will be Syrah (although the grape name will rarely appear on the label) – a variety that thrives on plenty of heat and sunshine.  It’s the same variety that, under its alternative name of Shiraz, does particularly well in Australia’s warmest areas.  In fact, it’s that country’s most widely planted variety, accounting for around 30% of the annual harvest.

But the northern Rhône is nowhere near as warm or sunny as the Barossa so, here, the Syrah vines need everything to be in their favour to ripen well: the steep, south-east facing vineyards get the most sunshine and are sheltered from cold northerly winds; the rocky soil is well drained and the rocks play their part by reflecting more heat onto the vines.

Even so, bottles from these vineyards are often a world away in style from an Aussie Shiraz.

Saint JosephThe one I opened recently was only 12.5% alcohol.  Cave Saint Desirat’s Saint Joseph (Waitrose, £13.99) is delightfully elegant with lovely raspberry and blackberry fruit and a hint of pepperiness – ideal with a steak or, perhaps better, pan fried venison.  A lovely wine – and one that is only possible by growers battling the daunting slopes you’ll see if you pause on your route through France.

A Greek Delight

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Sweet wines – and I mean here those that you can happily enjoy with a dessert – can be a real delight and I’m constantly amazed by just how diverse the choice is.  For maximum pleasure, just make sure the wine is a little bit sweeter than the pudding.

For gently sweet desserts (think zabaglione or panna cotta), look for something at the delicate end of the spectrum: a slightly sparkling Moscato d’Asti or one of the German selected harvest Rieslings, the latter often with just 6% alcohol.  A little weightier are the well-known wines of Sauternes and the, sadly, under-rated bottles from the Loire or Jurançon – perfect with lemon tart or Tarte Tatin.  And then, there’s the heavyweights: Australian ‘stickies’, Banyuls from the south of France, port and PX sherry – wines to pair with chocolate or Christmas Pudding.

With so many different styles to choose from, surely, there’s something for everyone?  But, no – there are still some wine lovers that won’t touch a sweet wine.

Samos Muscat

And, I suppose the Anthemis Muscat from the Greek island of Samos wouldn’t be my first choice to convince them otherwise – it’s just a bit too scary!  Just look at the colour: a lovely mahogany brown.  The nose is all Christmas cake spices and nuts.  And, in the mouth, there’s a wonderfully coating texture full of the same spices along with honey, figs, dates and prunes.  Sweet, yes, but in no way cloying.  We served it alongside some beautifully ripe peaches and apricots and it went perfectly – but a blue cheese would be a really good alternative.

It’s super-concentrated, so a little goes a long way.  A half bottle, available from the Wine Society (£6.95), will easily serve 4 or 5 people, while the slightly larger, 50cl, bottle sold in  Waitrose for £9.99 will give you 6 or 7 glasses.  Delicious!

 

 

Wine: The Fennel Frontier!

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Like many wine lovers, my wife and I also enjoy good food so the question of which wine to pair with a particular dish arises regularly.  Most of the time, it’s not too difficult – much of the food we cook is quite wine-friendly and there are probably 3 or 4 bottles in our rack that would work perfectly well; it’s just a question of which we decide to open on the night.  Sometimes, however, things are not as straightforward; take a recipe we followed recently:

‘Marinade some salmon steaks in a mixture of sherry vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, chives, spring onions, root ginger and ground coriander’

There’s enough tricky ingredients there already to upset any wine, but then the fish is baked on a bed of leeks and fennel. Absolutely delicious, but how do you find a wine to drink with it?  Ignore the salmon – that’s the easy bit!

Look for the strongest flavours in the dish is the usual plan, but, in this case, there are so many: the vinegar, the ginger, the coriander, the fennel – all are pretty powerful.  My first thoughts were for something quite aromatic – a New World Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc or a Viognier, perhaps, but my wife doubted that they would work with the aniseed flavour of the fennel.  I checked Fiona Beckett’s site (www.matchingfoodandwine.com) – a useful resource – and she agreed with my wife, suggesting a lightly oaked white.

Crasto White

Crasto Superior from the Douro region in Portugal is just that (Great Western Wine, £12.95).  It spends 6 months in barrel and, although quite oaky on the nose at first sniff, has barely a hint of it on the palate – just enough to flesh it out.   The main impression is of a delightfully mellow and harmonious wine with lovely herby and citrus flavours to the fore – exactly the sort of flavours to go with our tricky dish!

Sometimes it’s good to be over-ruled!

 

 

Denis Dubourdieu

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Denis-Dubourdieu(Picture: thanks to Decanter magazine)

I was really sad to read that Denis Dubourdieu died earlier this week. Many Bristol Wine Blog readers may not recognise his name, but it is no exaggeration to say that, without his work, many of the wines we drink today would be less interesting and enjoyable.

Born in 1949, the son of the owners of the famed Bordeaux estate, Château Doisy-Daëne in Barsac, he rose to become Professor of Oenology (the study of wine) at Bordeaux University.  But his research work was always practical and he put it to good use, both in the properties he came to own and in those for whom he was an internationally respected consultant.

Among his discoveries in the vineyard was the realisation that, by picking aromatic grape varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc, when they were less ripe, they retained their aromatic qualities better once turned into wine.  Linked to this was his finding that wines fermented at cooler temperatures were fresher and more ‘alive’. 

And, in fact, it was in the area of winemaking and maturation that he was most influential discovering that wines fermented in barrel were less astringent and so more harmonious than those only put into barrel after fermentation; also, how oak-ageing contributed to ‘toasty’ flavours and how using different yeasts and leaving wine on the lees (dead yeast cells) after fermentation affected the flavour of wine.

It is impossible to study wine without being confronted by various faults such as oxidation, excessive grassiness and other spoiling factors such as ‘brett’ and many of the key areas of his work involved how to avoid these or deal with them should they occur.

All of this might sound rather technical and remote but his work and explanations have helped winemakers worldwide to understand better what happens when grapes ferment and, as a result, the wines we are all drinking are more interesting and enjoyable.