Go Wild!

The label says ‘Wild Ferment’ in big red letters. So, is this something special we ought to know about? Well, something interesting: yes; but something special: not really.
Before the middle of the 19th century and Louis Pasteur’s work, all wines would effectively have been ‘wild ferment’. Indeed, the earliest wines almost certainly happened in this way – by accident when some grapes were picked and left somewhere warm and the yeasts naturally present in the vineyard reacted with them to produce a sort of crude and basic wine. So, a wild ferment simply means using the naturally occurring yeasts.
The alternative to a wild ferment is the use of cultured yeasts. This really only took off in the 2nd half of the 20th century when the popularity of wine expanded and most bottles were bought from supermarkets. The new customers demanded a consistent product – not something that was always possible with wild ferments – and, as a result, many producers turned to cultured yeasts that could be controlled and standardised to give a more predictable outcome.
But others thought that using cultured yeasts destroyed any sense of ‘terroir’ – the distinctive taste of the individual vineyard – and have remained with (or gone back to) using wild yeasts instead. These producers are in the minority today hence the specific mention of the words on the bottle label.
And the wine itself? Delheim’s Chenin Blanc is a fresh, grassy white from Stellenbosch in South Africa (Wine Society, £10.95). The attractive herby nose is followed by quite a full and complex palate. There’s subtle spicy, savoury flavours from partial barrel fermentation and a few months left on its lees (the dead yeast cells that keep working even after the fermentation has finished). And plenty of ripe melon and peach, too. All topped off with a long mouth-filling finish.
So, does the wild ferment make a difference? It’s difficult to say but I found quite a distinctive character about this wine that says more than ‘this is a simple Chenin Blanc’. And it’s a real bargain at just over a tenner.

Italy’s Treasure Chest

The land of Chianti and Barolo is a real treasure chest for wine lovers – but not just for those 2 famous names. Italy is divided into 20 different regions, each with their own traditions and wine styles, and boasts more native wine grapes than any other country – many that have been grown in just one small area for generations and are found nowhere else.
So, wherever you look in Italy, you’ll discover exciting and different wines. But, perhaps there’s a downside to this: you need to be adventurous and risk buying something you know nothing about. Although, having chanced the unknown on many occasions, I’d say ‘be brave’ – I’ve been pleasantly surprised more often than not. And, don’t worry about making an expensive mistake; lesser-known regions and grape varieties are often cheaper than the more famous names.
A bottle I opened recently supported this.

It was not only made from a relatively obscure grape variety – Pecorino – but also came from one of Italy’s less fashionable wine regions, the Abruzzo on the eastern, Adriatic coast. You may recognise the grape name is also the name of a local cheese; I’ve heard a number of explanations for this – none of them is particularly convincing!
The wine, Contesa’s Pecorino (Wine Society, a bargain at £9.95) is a delicious, fresh, zesty unoaked white, quite full-bodied (13% alcohol) and with lots of lovely ripe fruit flavours – pineapple, melon and peach in particular. Really easy-drinking either on its own or with fish or chicken or pasta in a creamy sauce.
The grapes are from a vineyard close to the town of Pescara and, although not certified organic, the producer has abandoned all use of weed killers and pesticides in favour of more natural methods.
So, if you see Pecorino or another Abruzzo wine (the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is also worth looking out for), do give them a try; these are just 2 examples of why I think Italy is such a treasure chest for wine lovers, particularly those open to trying something new.

A Proper Winter Wine

It’s October, the days are getting shorter and the temperature dropping. Real signs that the season is changing. For us, that means it’s time to think about some of those more robust, warming winter dishes. Like the delicious shin beef casserole full of chunky root vegetables such as celeriac and carrot we enjoyed last night. Of course, with the food reflecting the time of year, you also need to look to an altogether different style of wine – one that won’t be over-powered by all the strong flavours of the dish.
It would have to be red to go with the beef and the rich, savoury gravy but, more specifically, I was looking at something from one of the warmer parts of the world which would have the weight to balance the food. A number of possibilities came to mind: an Australian Shiraz or Californian Zinfandel would work perfectly or, perhaps, something from southern Europe or around the Mediterranean basin.

I finally settled on a wine from the Côtes du Roussillon, a much under-rated area near Perpignan in the very far south of France – indeed the vineyards for Domaine Gardiés Clos de Vignes (Wine Society, £17) are barely 30 miles from the Spanish border. I decanted the wine a couple of hours before we were going to drink it and found it opened up beautifully to reveal a lovely, savoury, satisfying red (made from a blend of mainly 70 year old Carignan and Grenache vines with small additions of Syrah and Mourvèdre). The wine was perfectly dry with attractive black fruits on the palate and a clear hint of cedar or cigar box flavours from the ageing in older, large wooden barrels. It’s certainly a big wine – it needed to be to complement the dish – but not so overwhelming that one glass was enough and the 14% alcohol is perfectly integrated so you’re not left with a burn on the finish.
All in all, a proper winter wine.

What’s in your Wine?

Well, fermented grapes, of course, but is there anything else in the bottle you should know about? These days, when almost all food products have detailed lists of ingredients and allergy warnings on the labels, it’s perhaps surprising that all you get on most wines is the simple message ‘contains sulphites’. For some mysterious reason, wine is exempt from many of the labelling requirements that other foods and beverages must comply with.
So, credit to the Co-op supermarket chain who voluntarily list the ingredients on all their own label wines. Take their ‘Irresistible (their description, not mine!) 30° Pinot Noir’ from Chile’s Casablanca Valley (£7):

apart from the expected Pinot Noir grapes, it contains tartaric acid – a common adjustment when grapes are harvested for extra ripeness – plus 3 ingredients to help ensure the wine reaches you in good condition: an antioxidant (nitrogen), a preservative (sulphur dioxide – hence the ‘contains sulphites’ message) and a stabiliser (cupric citrate).

It also goes on to tell you that a small (125ml) glass contains 98 calories – useful information for any weightwatcher – and that it’s suitable for both vegetarians and vegans.
And then there’s a comment ‘made using oak staves’. This is something that most producers don’t want to tell you – not because the staves are harmful (they’re not), but because it destroys the ‘mystique of the barrel’ – the idea that the oak flavours that many of us enjoy in our wines come from the wine resting in one of the rows of oak casks we’ve all seen at many wineries.
The truth is that these casks are expensive (typically around £750 or $1000 each) and using them for wines that are going to retail at under £10 a bottle doesn’t make economic sense. There are 2 cheaper alternatives: either gathering off-cuts from the barrel-making process into a giant ‘tea bag’ and suspending that in a tank of wine or, better, using oak planks or staves in the same way. It’s this 2nd method that the Co-op are telling us about on their label.
Oh, and I’ve been so busy blogging about the label, I nearly forgot to comment on the wine. It’s rich and mouth-filling and brimming with cherry and plum flavours. Not over-complex but very drinkable and, for just £7, a very good buy.

Solving a Mystery

I’m not easily persuaded by a smart wine label but, every now and then, I get drawn in.  Especially when there’s an element of mystery about the wine.  So, when I saw the bottle above in Grape and Grind recently with the starry label proclaiming ‘Objet Viticole Non Identifié’ (unidentified wine object), I was intrigued.

Grape and Grind, like many wine merchants in these Coronavirus affected times, ask customers to try and avoid picking up bottles they are not likely to buy so all I could tell from the front label was the grape variety (Chenin Blanc, which I like) and the producer (J.Mourat about whom I knew nothing).  But Grape and Grind are normally reliable, the wine wouldn’t break the bank (£14.99) so why not try?

Closer inspection made me even more interested; the label bore no vintage date and only the vaguest hint of its origin – Val de Loire (Loire Valley).  I learnt that Objet Viticole Non Identifié (OVNI for short) is the producer’s name for wines that he considers “anti-conformist,” – different from what you might expect. A mystery, indeed!

The wine itself was all I could have hoped for – and more: clean, fresh and quite tangy with lovely green apple flavours, an attractive creaminess in the mouth and a long, smooth finish showing lots of ripe fruit. An ideal aperitif but also good with lighter fish dishes or poultry.

I dug deeper to unlock the mystery.  The grapes are grown close to the coast just south of the Loire River, roughly halfway between Nantes and La Rochelle.  It’s an area that could attract the obscure Appellation Contrôlée Fiefs Vendéens, but Mourat, probably wisely, chose the more recognisable IGP (formerly Vin de Pays) Val de Loire instead.

The vineyard is organic and the wine is vinified in the now-fashionable egg-shaped concrete tanks (see picture below).

The idea of these, according to Jancis Robinson MW, is that the shape offers a high level of contact between the wine and the lees, reducing the need for batonnage (stirring) and encourages convection currents that improve fermentation kinetics. 

An explanation almost as mysterious as the label but who cares when the result is as good as this.

Re-thinking Chilean Wine

If I say ‘Chilean wine’ to you, what springs to mind?  Personally, I think of wines that are approachable, easy to drink, fruity, reliable and good value for money.  And UK wine lovers seem to agree – Chilean wines are big sellers here, particularly in the supermarkets.  But, do you see what’s missing in my description?  Nothing about wines that are exciting, challenging or innovative.  That’s not quite how I see Chile.

Part of the problem is that their wine industry is dominated by just 7 giant producers who, together, are responsible for over half of Chile’s wine.  By good marketing and a consistent product, they have secured a top 10 place among UK wine importers but, as a consequence, much of their offering is just a little bit safe.

But a piece in the latest Decanter magazine (labelled October) suggests that things are beginning to change.  Chile’s producers are expanding into new areas of the country, experimenting with different grape varieties and looking to produce more complex, age-worthy styles of wine.

The article prompted me to dig out a bottle from one of those 7 producers that I bought some time ago from the Wine Society (£14.50 at the time) and has been sitting quietly under our stairs ever since.   20 Barrels is one of Cono Sur’s premium labels and my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon was from the 2013 vintage, making it just over 7 years old.  So how had it aged?

I decanted it to find that the colour was still deep and vibrant, no sign of the browning rim that might show that it was past its best.  On the nose, quite fresh and fruity, with the blackcurrant aromas so typical of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape together with a few earthy, dusty notes.  The same followed through in the mouth with some plum and cassis, good intensity reflecting the 14½% alcohol and a little pepperiness and some spice from the well-integrated oak.  It had good length and the wine was still fresh and clearly with some years ahead of it yet (although not for me – I only had the one bottle).

So, time to re-think Chilean wines?  Perhaps.  At the entry level, the wines are easy drinking and good value for money but stretch a little upmarket and wines like this 20 Barrels definitely promise a good future if this is the direction in which Chilean wines are heading.

An Unusual Blend

For a wine lover, Spain has everything – well almost!  From attractive fizz to delicious, crisp, dry whites, sweet-fruited satisfying reds and a unique range of fortified wines.  But you won’t find all of these styles all over Spain; Spain comprises 17 determinedly autonomous regions, each growing its own particular grape varieties and frequently producing distinctly different wines from its neighbours.

One of the most independent-minded of these regions is Catalonia, the home of Spain’s Traditional Method sparkling wine, Cava, as well as many innovative and dynamic producers – Miguel Torres springs readily to mind.  But Catalonia also has many smaller, lesser-known estates offering distinctive high quality wines, often based on unusual blends of grape varieties.

One such estate is Parés Baltà with vineyards in the hilly Penedès district, west of Barcelona.  Here, they grow an assortment of grapes following biodynamic principles – a sort of super-organic regime that I have explained in more detail in past blogs.  The all-female winemaking team have created an interesting product range including a delicious red, Mas Petit (Corks, £15.99), made from a blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, that we enjoyed recently.

I decanted the wine an hour before drinking revealing a lovely deep, ruby colour. The nose, a little dumb at first, soon opened up giving aromas of red cherries, dried herbs and toasty vanilla. To taste, the wine was quite soft and very approachable, concealing the 14.5% alcohol well.  There was a hint of subtle vanilla spice from 7 months in older French oak barrels but the main impression was of vibrant red and black fruits and a delightful herbiness. 

Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon may not be the most common blend of grapes but here it worked well with, perhaps surprisingly, the soft richness of the Grenache taking centre stage ahead of the usually more forward Cabernet.  Food match? Pretty versatile, I’d say, but we teamed it with some roast duck legs coated with an aromatic spicy rub.  Delicious!

California Wildfires Strike Again

(picture thanks to AFP and Daily Mail)

Sadly, once again I find myself blogging about the woes affecting California’s vineyards. The state has ideal summer weather, perfect for ripening grapes, but the heat and dryness brings the risk of wildfires which, over the past few years seem to have worsened, becoming a serious and unwelcome regular event.
Two of the most extensive fires ever recorded have struck the area recently with, tragically, a number of fatalities plus several injuries and many homes and businesses destroyed. The fires are mainly in or close to key wine producing areas and already I have seen reports of extensive fire damage to 2 wineries, one in Solano County and one in the Santa Cruz Mountains and more minor damage to vines and outbuildings elsewhere including at 3 estates in Napa.
But the damage caused directly by the fire is only part of the story as far as wine producers are concerned. Acrid smoke hangs in the air around the fires and can be smelt many miles beyond; a number of official warnings for poor air quality are in force. Although this is bad for the local population, this year, more than ever before, it is affecting the grapes, too. The 2020 fire season has begun earlier than usual and, as a result, many of the grapes are still on the vines, unlike previous years when most would already have been harvested and be safely in the winery fermenting. This creates a particular problem, especially for red grapes. If smoke gets into the grape skins, it will taint the flavours and produce bitter, unpleasant tastes. White wines will be less affected as the winemakers can quickly press the grapes releasing the juice and the impact should be minimal. Not so for reds, where the skins are a crucial part of the process, essential for flavour and texture in the wine. It has been suggested that more rosé will be made as a consequence, but that isn’t really what the premium areas of California are aiming for.
The very latest reports are that the temperatures have moderated slightly giving the firefighters a chance to get the blazes under control. We can only hope that continues but, with the fire season still far from over, the problem could be around for some time to come.
I join with all wine lovers to say we will be thinking of the people affected and wishing them well.

Dreams of Porto

My wife and I had planned to return to one of our favourite cities for a holiday this year. Oporto (or Porto as it is known to the locals and its friends) is a real treasure tumbling down the hillside, as you can see from the picture above taken across the spectacular River Douro. Hilary has even been studying Portuguese – a notoriously difficult language – so that we would be fully prepared. But the continuing impact of coronavirus has caused us to have a re-think; perhaps next year will be better.
But we can still dream and plan and, to help us, we opened a bottle of Casa de Mouraz red (Corks, £15.99) with our dinner recently.

The Mouraz estate is about a couple of hours drive south-east of Porto in the Dão DOC (DOC is the Portuguese equivalent of the French Appellation Controlée), where the wines are often made in a similar style to the Douro region. They also grow many of the same grape varieties, 9 of which, majoring on the high quality Touriga Nacional, go into the wine we enjoyed, and all are named on the eye-catching label.
The grapes for this wine come from a number of different vineyards across the DOC but, rather than planting each vineyard with a single variety as is the modern trend, here you find an assortment of grapes, known as a ‘Field Blend’ in each plot – a method that used to be much more common than it is today. Under this system, each vineyard is harvested as a whole and all the different grapes are fermented together and only at the final stage are the wines produced from each vineyard blended together to produce the product in the bottle.
The wine itself was quite full and mouth-filling with fresh red cherry fruit and a little dried fruit – raisin, sultana – on the finish. There was no sign of age, although our bottle was almost 6 years old from the 2014 harvest, just a delightful, soft and harmonious red that went very well with our lamb and sparked our interest for plans for the future.

Room Temperature?

We’re all familiar with the advice ‘drink white wine chilled, red wine at room temperature’, but what do we mean by ‘room temperature’?  I’ve noted before in this Blog that normal room temperature today (especially in winter) is likely to be rather higher than our pre-central heating ancestors would have been used to.  As a result, we’re probably serving our red wines quite a bit warmer than was intended when the advice first emerged.

But a brief heatwave in Bristol recently put an entirely new slant on the term; our living room reached close to 30°C (86°F) mid-afternoon and our outside terrace remained well into the 20s for much of the evening.  Not the ideal temperature for a red wine.

Ever since a trip to France’s Beaujolais region in the early 1990s, where we found restaurants always served the local wines chilled, we’ve given light-bodied reds, like Beaujolais, a half an hour in the fridge before drinking and find them more refreshing that way.  But, where we store our wines is quite cool and we usually serve anything heavier than a Beaujolais straight from the wine rack. But, during our heatwave, it was time for a re-think.  What else might benefit from chilling?

SyrahI picked Yves Cuilleron’s Syrah from France’s northern Rhône region (Grape and Grind, Bristol,  £13.25) – not as big and chunky as many Australian Shirazes, but by no means a light-bodied red.  A half an hour in an ice bucket worked beautifully, bringing out all the wine’s deep blackberry fruit and subtle spiciness without making the tannins harsh or too intrusive.  A real treat sitting out on our terrace and accompanying some delicious goat chops cooked in a tomatoey sauce (the tomatoes also grown on our terrace!) with fennel.

I’m not suggesting you chill a young claret or a robust Zinfandel – leave those for cooler weather – but for a nice medium-bodied red on a hot evening, room temperature is definitely not the way to go.