5 Years and Counting!


Today (July 28, 2015) is my 5th birthday! Well, not mine of course, otherwise I shouldn’t be drinking wine, let alone teaching and writing about it. No – today Bristol Wine Blog is 5 years old. My first WordPress blog – a few rather embarrassing sounding lines introducing myself (still available if you really must – go to Archives, July 2010) – attracted just 7 readers, mostly friends I’d alerted. Since then I’ve had almost 14000 hits on this site, plus unknown numbers of others that read it on my Facebook Page, Wine Talks and Tastings. To all of you, Thank You for reading and I hope to provide you with lots more of interest in the future.

And how have I been celebrating my ‘birthday’? With a glass of one of my favourite grape varieties (Riesling) from, perhaps, a surprising source. Riesling is a grape that does well in relatively cool climates; in Germany, it thrives in some of the most northerly vineyards in the world where other varieties simply wouldn’t ripen. So, you might not expect it in Australia with its generally warm to hot climate – except that some bits of Australia are decidedly cool.

Howard Park RieslingTake the Great Southern region of Western Australia, for example. Thanks to winds and ocean currents straight from the Antarctic, parts of Great Southern are ideal for Riesling; Howard Park produces an excellent example there (Great Western Wine, £15.95). A wonderful aperitif with its lovely palate-awakening zingy freshness and delightful lemon and grapefruit aromas and flavours, but it’s a wine that also has enough richness and complexity to cope well with fish dishes (we paired it with Cornish brill), especially those in a creamy, herby sauce.

And, as Riesling is a grape variety that keeps well, I think I’ll get another bottle to lay down ready to open for the next big celebration – my 10th ‘birthday’, perhaps?

South Africa: Great Wines and More to Come!


How South African wines have changed in little more than 20 years! It’s not the first time I’ve made that comment in a Bristol Wine Blog – and I doubt it will be the last. South Africa emerged in the early 1990s from its period of isolation with much of its wine industry in a dire state: vineyards planted with the wrong grape varieties, wineries full of out-dated equipment and wines that were of no interest to world markets. If South Africa was to compete, things had to improve – and fast! And that’s just what happened! And today their wines are still improving. Yet they remain really affordable – many are just tremendous value.

Thelema redTake the pair from Thelema Mountain Vineyards I opened recently. Their Mountain Red (Great Western Wine, £10.95) is an unusual ‘Bordeaux meets Rhône’ blend of 6 varieties (Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Petit Verdot and Grenache) grown on the slopes of the Simonsberg mountain outside Stellenbosch. The wine is a lovely easy drinking red, full of plum and blackberry fruit flavours with an attractive peppery, spicy finish. Although 14.5% alcohol, there’s no alcoholic ‘burn’ to it, just a really approachable wine that would go well with red meats, mushroom dishes or hard cheeses.

Thelema SutherlandJust a few days earlier, I opened a bottle of Sutherland Viognier/Roussanne (also GWW, £13.25) from Thelema’s other vineyard in Elgin, south-east of Cape Town. Here, just a few miles from the Atlantic, is one of South Africa’s coolest wine growing areas where the grapes ripen slowly and produce elegant wines with real complexity and concentration. Although made from grapes native to the Rhône, the winemaking (10 months on its lees, barrel fermentation and maturation) is Burgundian in nature – and the taste, too: think village Burgundy and you won’t be far wrong.

An amazing transformation in just 2 decades. But South Africa’s winemakers are not resting on their success; they know there’s even more to come.

The Meaning of ‘Terroir’


Go to France and talk to one of the locals about wine and, before long, you’ll almost certainly hear the word ‘terroir’. It’s the way most French wine producers – and some keen wine drinkers there – think about wine. But, here in the UK, even translating it properly is a problem.

I think of terroir as the combination of all the natural features of a vineyard that contribute to a particular wine tasting the way it does. This includes climate (temperature, rainfall, exposure to the sun), location (altitude, soil, shelter from the wind, slope of the land), plus the grape variety (or varieties).

So, how does terroir influence things in practice? The Loire wine area of Vouvray is a good example. It’s barely 10 miles long by about 8 miles wide. Yet, within this relatively small area, you find white wines ranging from dry, through medium-dry to sweet, even sparkling wines. It’s not the grape variety that makes the difference – all are made from Chenin Blanc – it’s tiny variations in climate and location:

In shady, damper sites, the grapes struggle to ripen and so are only suitable for sparkling wines. Just along the road, a vineyard may get a lot more sun and, perhaps, be more sheltered from the wind, so the grapes will become riper and can be made into a dry or off-dry still wine. Closer to the river, the more humid conditions encourage noble rot – ideal for some of the glorious sweet wines. And those three sites may be within walking distance of each other.

VouvraySo, if you’re buying a Vouvray – and there are some great ones around – you’ll need to choose carefully as the style isn’t always clear from the label. For a lovely dry example, try Champalou’s Vouvray Sec (Great Western Wine, £13.50). Bottles labelled demi-sec will be medium dry while ‘moelleux’ indicates a sweet wine – many of these will be sold in half bottles. The sparkling wines are easiest to recognise, as they will often have a champagne-style wired-on cap.

And all from one small area. That’s terroir!

A Strange Blend


Wine can either be made from a single grape variety – Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, or it can be a blend of 2, 3 or more different varieties – even up to 13 in the case of some Châteauneuf-du-Pape! Producers who use a single variety argue that it gives more focus and precision to their wine, while those that blend will say that combining different grapes offers more complexity and interest. Depending on the wine, either view may be right. I leave the choice to you.

But I am often tempted by unusual blends of grapes just to see how they work together (or not in some cases!) And so I came to buy a bottle of Aemilia at Waitrose recently (£9.99), a blend of 3 varieties: Shiraz, Vranec and Petit Verdot. I’m sure you’re all familiar with Shiraz, Petit Verdot is a high quality but rarely mentioned Bordeaux variety but Vranec? Give yourself a big pat on the back if you said that it’s a native of the Dalmatian coast and the Balkans region, particularly Montenegro and (the former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia.

Aemilia from MacedoniaAemilia comes from the Tikves region of Macedonia. It’s a generously flavoured, spicy and quite intense red with lovely juicy black fruit flavours and fair length for the money. There’s a bit of soft tannin there, too, suggesting it would go on a while, but it’s really enjoyable now, so why keep it? Definitely a wine to drink with food; the label suggests roast beef, cassoulet or a spicy vegetable tagine and I’d add any robust, peasant-style stew or casserole. Delicious!

So, what about the blend? It works nicely but, for me, it doesn’t differ significantly in flavour from a 100% Vranec from Montenegro I tasted a while back. Perhaps the marketing people thought Shiraz on the label might catch the attention of those who’d shy away from Vranec on its own – and they might just be right!

Spain beats Bordeaux’s best!


Is wine A better than wine B? Are both of them better than or not as good as wine C? That’s the sort of debate wine lovers have been having for centuries – millennia, perhaps. And there’s never a single right answer because everyone’s sense of taste is different, unique to them. But debates will always go on and they’re particularly interesting when, as in the annual Decanter World Wine Awards, not just a few wines but 16000 are being assessed (all tasted with their identities concealed) and more than 200 professional tasters are involved. The results, shown in a supplement to Decanter magazine (August edition, £4.40), make fascinating reading.
Decanter Wine Awards
The International Trophies are Decanter’s top awards where the wines that have already gained medals as the best of their type are tasted again against each other – and it’s where surprises always occur. Take this year’s Trophy for the best wine made from red Bordeaux varieties, for example. As you might expect, a couple of wines from Bordeaux won through to the final, but were beaten there by Torres’ Reserva Real from Spain. Similarly in the red Rhône section, Sidewood’s Shiraz from South Australia was the victor, rather than a wine from the Rhône itself. And to complete a trio of major French defeats, in the top Chardonnay category, Vidal’s Legacy from New Zealand finished ahead of a field including a very classy white Burgundy.

All wasn’t complete gloom for France; they did win more of the 35 Trophies than any other country (8) including best sparkling wine (Piper Heidsieck Brut Vintage 2006) and best Pinot Noir (Domaine de la Vougeraie). But with Australia, South Africa and Spain winning 5 Trophies each and a further 5 going to South America (Argentina and Chile), it’s clear that the world of wine is changing fast. The traditional areas had better look out! Competition is getting stronger all the time – and that can only be good for wine lovers.

Full details of all the winners (some of which are not available in the UK) can be found in Decanter magazine or online at http://www.decanter.com.

The next big white grape?


Grapes for white wines go in and out of fashion in a way that red varieties don’t seem to do. The first major trend was for Chardonnay – whether oaked, unoaked, crisp and refreshing, intense and full of tropical fruits. Whatever the style, consumers loved Chardonnay; they couldn’t buy enough of it. Then, just as quickly, it fell out of fashion. ‘ABC’ (anything but Chardonnay) became the new ‘in’ phrase. Now, if I open a bottle of Chardonnay at a wine course, it’s likely to be greeted by groans of disapproval. Sad, because there are some great ones around.

Sauvignon Blanc took over briefly, especially zingy, zesty examples from New Zealand with the iconic Cloudy Bay at the forefront. And now? It’s Pinot Grigio, but at bargain basement price. Which is a shame as cheap Pinot Grigio often has little to offer, whereas those paying a few pounds more will find some high quality wines, especially those that realise that bottles from Alsace labelled Pinot Gris are made from the same grape.

So what’s the next big white grape likely to be? Perfumed, peachy Alboriño from Galicia in NW Spain and spicy, peppery Grüner Veltliner from Austria, both long-time favourites of mine, are regularly mentioned as candidates, but I have another suggestion: the rich, citrusy Vermentino from Italy (also known as Rolle in southern France).

Stoke Lodge 4If you’re not familiar with Vermentino, try the delicious, aromatic Melis Iocalia (Wine Society) from Sardinia, at just £8.95, a bargain and, not surprisingly, a regular on our wine rack. Like Alboriño or Grüner Veltliner, this is a grape to consider if you’re eating fish, chicken or just about anything in a creamy sauce.

So, rather than another bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, look out for a wine from one of these distinctive and delightful varieties and create fashion rather than following it.

The Douro: Great Wines as well as Port


Douro Terraced VineyardsExciting things are happening in Portugal’s Douro region! It has always had some of the world’s most spectacular terraced vineyards (see above) and an ideal climate in which to ripen some high quality local grape varieties. But, since the best parts of the Douro were officially designated by the Marquês de Pombal in 1756, the most highly regarded – and profitable – output of the region has always been port. Wine only came from the lesser vineyards – those not considered good enough for port.

But times are changing fast. Today, many port estates are realising the commercial importance of wine and are taking it far more seriously. As a result, we’re seeing some really good reds (and even a little white) alongside the traditional ports. Producers are using the same grape varieties they use for port – grapes like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca, for example; it’s what goes on in the winery that’s different. For port, fortifying grape spirit is added part way through the fermentation process; this kills the yeasts before they’ve converted all the grape sugar into alcohol, leaving the strong (20% abv), sweet drink we’re used to. Wine is, in many ways simpler: you leave the yeasts alone to complete their job, turning all the sugar to alcohol and giving a lovely, rich, smooth dry wine.

You won’t have to search too hard for very drinkable Douro wines – nor pay silly prices for something really enjoyable. Take the simply named ‘Crasto’ (available from Majestic), for example; a delightful blend of the 4 port varieties mentioned above gives a medium-bodied unoaked red full of lovely blackberry fruit and spice and with excellent length. A little tannin suggests there’s no hurry to drink up and all for £8.99. A bargain! I struggle to think of a better wine anywhere for the money.