A Spanish Red – and not Rioja


Regular Bristol Wine Blog readers will know that I’m a great fan of Spanish wines – and not just Rioja (although I’ve enjoyed some outstanding bottles from there, too).  From the Mediterranean-influenced south-east come the delicious Monastrell- (aka Mourvedre or Mataro) based reds of Jumilla and Yecla – wonderful value for money.  At the other end of the price spectrum (but still worth trying) are the deep, intense old vine Garnachas (Grenache) from Priorat in the remotest hills of Catalonia.  And, for those who prefer white to red, what better than the lovely, fragrant Alboriños, Godellos and Loureiras of Rias Baixas in the far north-western region of Galicia.

But, stop just to the east of Rias Baixas and you’re in the tiny DO (Denominacion de Origen – the Spanish equivalent of Appellation Contrôlée) of Ribeira Sacra, where the favourite grape is a red variety, Mencia.  It was thought at one time to be the same grape as Pinot Noir, or, certainly, closely related to it – a link reinforced by the centuries-old pilgrimage route from Burgundy to Santiago de Compostela.  But that relationship has now been firmly disproved, although I can certainly see a similarity of flavours in some bottles I have tasted.

Guimaro MenciaThe example I opened recently from Guímaro (Wine Society, £9.50) was a lovely deep, almost purple, colour with quite a smoky nose.  To taste, it was lighter bodied that you might expect from the colour with attractive juicy flavours of plums and bitter black cherries followed by a long and slightly peppery finish with, perhaps, a little more warmth than the 13% alcohol shown on the label might lead you to believe.

An ideal match for duck or partridge, for example, Mencia is a variety that really should be better known.  Perhaps it’s only the size of the production (and the love for it locally) that is holding it back.  Do try it if you see one.


Wines from Supermarkets


In Britain, we buy most of our wines from a supermarket but is that a good idea?  That was the question I tried to answer during a day course I ran recently at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  I trawled the local branches of all our major supermarkets and found a dozen bottles for my group of keen wine lovers to taste.  The selection ranged in price from £4.50 to £10 and across New and Old World.

Unsurprisingly, when I called for a vote at the end of the day, opinions on the best wines tasted were very diverse; in fact, 9 of the 12 bottles gained at least 1 vote.

The most popular New World wine (and joint 3rd overall) was the Co-op’s ‘Truly Irresistible’ Chilean Malbec.  With its lovely, vibrant black fruit flavours, it certainly deserved the Decanter Gold Medal it won last year and is a real bargain at £6.99.  But ‘truly irresistible’ – come on, Co-op, you can find a better name than that!

SL Supermkt 1The other joint 3rd, Marks and Spencer’s Mâcon-Villages (£10), was another Decanter winner (the International Trophy for the best Chardonnay under £15).  A really delicious example of an unoaked white Burgundy – pure and lively with pear and peach flavours and a long finish.  Although the dearest wine of the day, for me, this, too was a bargain.

A second French white was voted into the runner-up spot.  Côté Mas Vermentino (Waitrose, £8.49), from the Languedoc in the far south, is fresh, clean and herby with some richness and a really attractive streak of refreshing acidity (although this latter characteristic wasn’t to everyone’s taste).

SL Supermkt 2And the winner?  By a clear margin: Fortezza dei Colli Chianti from Lidl’s (£8.99).  I generally ignore supermarket Chiantis as, in my experience, they are often pretty ordinary.  But this one had the words Classico and Riserva on the label which attracted my attention; Classico means that it comes from the best part of Chianti and Riserva, that it has been given extra time to mature – something that producers only do with their best wines.  And it was from the 2009 vintage, which has produced some excellent wines that are drinking really well now.  I wasn’t disappointed and, given the voting, nor were the rest of the group – the smooth, smoky, bitter cherry flavours of a good Chianti were all there.  I just wonder how they do it at the price.

So, to answer my first question: yes, there are wines in our supermarkets that are worth buying – just choose carefully.


A Taste of the South


Lovers of French reds will be familiar with the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône but, perhaps, take less interest in the wines of the Languedoc, the Mediterranean-influenced south of the country.  And, for those who have been enjoying wine for many years, as I have, there is good reason: memories of the heavy, rustic, fruitless reds that were that area’s usual output for much of the 1970s and into the 80s.  But how things have changed!  Today, it’s easy to find really attractive, characterful wines and, because their reputation lingers, many are exceptional value for money.

The change started with the introduction of the Vin de Pays classification (now, regrettably, re-named IGP).  This allowed growers more flexibility to plant the grape varieties customers were demanding (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot), rather than the ones their families had always grown.  But the traditional local varieties were the backbone of the region’s Appellation Contrôlée (AC) wines and producers of these were not going to give up their heritage so easily.

Fitou, Corbières and Minervois are the best known AC names but excellent wines can also be found in St.Chinian, Faugères and Pic St Loup among others; all produce reds from a blend of grapes including Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and a number of other local varieties.  But, because the proportions of these vary from vineyard to vineyard and many different micro-climates exist across the region, there are significant variations in style.  It’s worth trying wines from a few different producers to find which appeals most.Faugeres

I was very impressed with a bottle of Faugères I opened recently.  From Domaine des Prés Lasses (Great Western Wine, £13.95), this organic red is bottled unfiltered, so is best decanted before serving – something that will also give you the best chance to enjoy its lovely deep ruby colour.  The attractive black fruits on the nose lead you into a wine that is quite full-bodied, as you would expect from 14.5% alcohol, but this was well balanced with good intensity of flavour – bitter black cherries and a certain smokiness prevailed.  An ideal match for game or mushroom-based dishes and although it was drinking well now, there’s certainly no hurry to drink up.


St Emilion’s ‘Grand’ Row


St EmilionWine lovers spending time in France’s Bordeaux region should certainly visit the delightful walled town of St Emilion (pictured above): walk through its attractive cobbled streets, explore some of its fascinating historic buildings and taste some of the local specialities – not just the wines!  But behind the seemingly harmonious facade of the town, a furious argument has been raging for a decade.  And it’s all about the status (or lack of it) of the various wines of the area.

In 1955, the wines of St Emilion were divided into 5 groups: Premier Grand Cru Classé A (the best), followed by Premier Grand Cru Classé B and Grand Cru Classé.  Below these were 2 unclassified groups: Grand Cru and, at the bottom of the hierarchy, those that were simply to be labelled St Emilion.  But, unlike some other classifications in France, this one was not fixed; it would be reviewed every 10 years or so to reward improvers and to demote any who no longer deserved their position.  The first few reviews passed without any problems but then we came to 2006.

That year, 11 previously classified properties were demoted and 8 promoted.  The demoted properties immediately launched a legal challenge in the French courts.  Initially, the Courts agreed and cancelled the 2006 reclassification but that triggered objections from those who would have been promoted.  Eventually, in 2009, they, too, were allowed to retain their new status, but a further review was ordered in 2012.

And you can probably guess what happened then!  Yes!  Legal proceedings are still continuing with a number of properties alleging errors and inconsistencies in the selection process.  Watch this space!

But, if you look closely at the selection criteria, you wonder whether it really tells us, the customers, much about which wines we should buy and which we should leave on the shelf:  Reputation of the estate, availability of their wines, location of the property and estate practices count for more points in the assessment than the actual taste of the wines.

For that reason, my advice when buying St Emilion is: ignore whether the label features the word ‘classé’ or not.  Just find a reliable wine merchant and taste the wines yourself before buying.

Follow the Doctor


Suggest a bottle of German wine to someone browsing the wine aisles in the local supermarket and you’re likely to get a very negative reply: “German wine – it’s all that nasty sweet Liebfraumilch, isn’t it?” would be a typical comment.  And if a British wine drinker does buy German wine, it’s often because it’s the cheapest bottle on the shelf.  But, more often than not, they simply ignore it completely.  Which is a real shame because, if you choose well (and, yes, that does mean avoiding Liebfraumilch and other bargain basement bottles), you will be rewarded with some delicious, food-friendly wines.  And, because they’re unpopular here, many are excellent value, too.

Take Loosen’s ‘Dr.L’ Riesling (Sainsbury’s, just £7), from the Mosel region, for example.

Dr L Riesling  I’ll admit it’s slightly off-dry (don’t let that put you off – it’s by no means sweet) but it is also crisp, refreshing and deliciously floral.  It would make a perfect light aperitif or, as it suggests on the back label, would go well with mildly spicy dishes – curries and the like – or with smoked meats; just don’t overpower it with strong flavours – this is a really delicate wine.

And, in these days of alcoholic ‘monsters’, it has just 8.5% alcohol.  But that’s typical of German wines (and, perhaps, why they’re not more popular!).  The Mosel vineyards are among the most northerly in Europe (and therefore the coolest), so grapes don’t get as ripe there as they might further south.  So, you end up with lower alcohol but generally higher levels of acidity – which is often balanced by a hint of sweetness.

German wines will never be to everyone’s taste.  Dr.L Riesling is a good start, but the same producer makes a whole range of wonderful wines (some at rather higher prices) and there are many other very talented, if lesser-known German winemakers too.  I do recommend giving them a try.



A Forgotten Corner


New York is the 3rd largest wine producing state in the USA but we see precious few of their wines in the UK.  Even rarer is anything from the adjacent Canadian areas of Ontario and Niagara Peninsula.  So, when I saw that the Bristol Tasting Circle was holding an event featuring the wines of this forgotten corner of North America (at least on this side of the pond), I was keen to attend.

The evening was hosted by Ed Adams MW who brought along a most interesting selection of wines.  A pair of Rieslings, both from Finger Lakes in New York State, couldn’t have been more different from one another: Fox Run’s clean, just off-dry example was really refreshing and quite citrusy, while the Late Harvest bottle from Hermann J. Wiemer was everything you’d expect from a high quality dessert wine – beautiful sweetness balanced by lovely acidity and great length.New York Late Harvest Riesling

I’d not met the grape variety Rkatseteli outside its native Georgia (the former Soviet Union one, not the US state!) but Dr Konstantin Frank arrived in Finger Lakes from the Ukraine in the 1960s with some vines and his company is still growing it today, producing an attractive dry white with a rich, tangy flavour, once you get past the rather strange and, to some, off-putting, nose.

Of the reds we tasted, Red Newt Cellars ‘Viridescens’, a blend of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, was full of delicious black fruits with no signs of age despite the 2007 vintage, while Huff Estates Gamay (one of the 2 Canadian wines on show) was more Pinot Noir-like – really juicy and drinkable.

We concluded with Peller’s Ice Cuvée Rosé (the one wine we tasted that is easily available here: Great Western Wines, £26.50), a traditional method sparkler, mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but, unusually, with a dosage of Ice wine (made using frozen grapes).

Peller Ice Cuvee

A fascinating evening with a real diversity of tastes.  Hopefully, one day, more of the wines from this forgotten corner will be on our shelves to enjoy.

UK Government says Drink Less


Many in Britain will wake up this morning to newspaper stories about the new UK government guidelines for safe drinking.  These say that we should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per person a week spread over 3 or 4 days and that the limits for men and women are now the same.  (14 units equates to about a bottle and a half of wine).  I have no medical training and so I am not qualified to offer advice.  I will simply say that I will continue to drink responsibly and teach and blog with that philosophy in mind.

SancerreRegular readers will know that I’m always looking out for wines from new or different regions of the world or from lesser-known grape varieties.  It’s my way of keeping up with the ever-changing world of wine.  Yet, doing this, it’s all too easy to ignore the familiar – when did I last buy a bottle of Chablis or Chianti, for example?  So, it’s fortunate that some good friends brought along a bottle of Sancerre when we entertained them to dinner recently.  It was absolutely delicious, but, more importantly, it reminded me that there’s a reason why many of the famous names are famous – and always searching for something different meant that I was missing out on some outstanding wines.

Sancerre is a village at the eastern end of France’s Loire Valley that specialises in 2 grape varieties: Pinot Noir for its rosés and reds and, more importantly, Sauvignon Blanc for its dry, crisp whites.  The popularity of this latter variety has increased dramatically over the last couple of decades, thanks to some wonderful examples from New Zealand, especially, who seemed to be setting a new benchmark for the grape based on distinctive crisp, clean, pure and vibrant fruit flavours and aromas.  The Sauvignons of Sancerre, while still recognisable as the same grape, tend to be much more restrained with flinty, grassy and gooseberry and citrus tastes and smells.  Which is better?  That depends on your own preference, but, if you’re a fan of the one, do try the other.

Unfortunately, as it was a gift, I can’t tell you the supplier or price of the bottle that re-opened my mind but, if you see François and Jean-Marie Cherrier’s Sancerre Les Chailloux in your local store, I recommend you pick up a bottle straightaway.  Perhaps, I’d better start looking for some Chablis and Chianti, as well!