A Red to Chill

It‘s the middle of June, temperatures are rising and I really can believe that summer is here at last.  We even enjoyed dinner outside on our terrace last night.  With this weather, we switch to lighter meals and the question always arises: what do we drink with them?  Something chilled, of course. 

Plenty of choice among the whites – almost any of them would benefit from half an hour in the fridge although I tend to avoid anything too oaky or rich, both of which are likely to overpower the food.  Then there’s rosé; we drink it year round, but it’s especially good with summer dishes.  The Hungarian example I blogged about last time would be ideal or we drank one from Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall recently which was also delicious.  But how about a red to chill? 

The options here are much more limited but my no.1 pick would be Beaujolais.  Although all red Beaujolais is made with the same single grape variety, Gamay, the styles and qualities can vary enormously.  The bottles you see most frequently on the shelves are from Georges Duboeuf with their pretty flower-patterned labels – always reliable and very drinkable.

For a step up in quality, look for wines labelled ‘Beaujolais-Villages’ or from one of the 10 named villages (see below), which are from the best sites in the region and are generally more complex and characterful than plain Beaujolais. There are many excellent producers in the area.  One of my favourites is Jean-Marc Burgaud who has vineyards in the villages of Morgon, Régnié and Lantignié (the wines from the latter have to be labelled as Beaujolais Villages).  The Wine Society stock the Morgon at £13.95 and the Régnié is £1 cheaper.

The Morgon is lovely but richer and more intense and, perhaps, better suited to autumn or even winter drinking so the Régnié is the one to choose for chilling.  It boasts attractive black berry fruits and a slight smokiness, quite low tannin, as is typical for a Beaujolais and a really long, savoury finish.  Perfect with salads and lighter summer dishes and always worth trying if you want to pair a red with a fish dish.

And finally, for those who are interested, the 10 named villages – all slightly different in style – are: Brouilly, Côtes de Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Régnié, Saint-Amour.

East or West?

It’s become popular in the media these days to talk about a ‘North/South divide’ in England, contrasting the poorer north with the richer south.  It’s an interesting idea with some truth in it, although it’s not really as simple as that.

But I have a contrast of my own to put forward: in wine terms, the east/west split in Europe – between the unfashionable east (Germany, Hungary, Greece and the Baltic countries) as opposed to the fashionable west (principally France and Spain) with Italy lying somewhere in the middle.

For those willing to explore, there are some real delights to be found among the unfashionable – and, because the wines are generally less well-known, a few bargains, too.

Take the delightful St Donat Tihany Rosé from Hungary, for example (Novel Wines, £11.49).  The pretty pale pink shade suggests a subtle, even neutral flavoured wine, but the colour is deceptive in that there is plenty of character in this delicious, dry rosé, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and the local speciality, Kekfrankos.

Grown in the Lake Balaton area in the west of Hungary, the vines benefit from 2 natural features: the influence of the lake moderating the climate and the low-fertility volcanic soil which limits the grape yield and so intensifies the flavours. The wine is completely unoaked to preserve its fruity character but then spends six months on its lees for extra texture and flavour.

The result is fresh and lively, full of red fruit flavours, particularly crushed strawberries, crisp, but with enough body to make it surprisingly food-friendly – a garlicky fish stew with tomatoes springs to mind.

Finally, a word about Novel Wines, from whom I bought this wine.  They are a relatively young (started in 2016) Bath-based company who specialise in wines from smaller producers mainly from across central and eastern Europe (especially Hungary), but also have an interesting selection of English wines. If you are interested in exploring the unusual, you can find them at www.novelwines.co.uk and they will deliver.

Red Wine with Cheese?

Good bread, cheese and a glass of wine.  Is there a better lunch – especially in the open air on a sunny day?  Or, how about a generous cheese board to share with friends towards the end of a meal?  Whenever cheese is involved, a good glass of wine makes a perfect accompaniment.  But which wine?  A friend of ours declared recently that she always prefers red wine with her cheese.  And why not?  I’ve said many times before in these Blogs that you should drink what you like rather than what someone tells you is the ‘right’ wine to go with a certain dish.

But, as you might guess from the picture above, I’m not sure that red wine always works best with cheese.  For me, it depends on the cheese.

If you go to the Sancerre region of northern France, they will serve a glass of the local white (Sauvignon Blanc) with their own tangy goats’ cheese – delicious!  That wouldn’t go so well with one of those lovely soft creamy cheeses like a Brie, Camembert, or, my present favourite, Chaource, but a rich, unoaked Chardonnay or Chenin would be perfect.

Where I think red wines really come into their own is with hard cheeses, such as a tasty farmhouse cheddar.  There’s the whole range to choose from but I’d suggest nothing too tannic, so a Pinot Noir or, perhaps, a village Beaujolais would be my top picks.

And then there’s the blue cheeses.  Port and Stilton is the tradition – but not in our household!  I love port and quite like stilton, but not together, thank you.  But do experiment with sweet wines to match blue cheeses – Sauternes and salty Roquefort is a wonderful combination, for example.

Trying to match different wines with a varied cheeseboard is difficult in practice.  How often do you want to open several bottles, one for each of the different tastes? But, at the end of a dinner party with friends, you might have a little wine left in a number of bottles.  Just the time to mix and match and see what really works best for you.

Not so New

In wine terms, Australia is commonly thought of as ‘New World’ although the word ‘new’ is hardly appropriate as vines have been grown in the country since the late 18th century when they were one of the crops taken there by the first European settlers.  Within a few years, wine was being made and, by the 1820s, the locals were confident enough to send samples back to England where they won medals from the Royal Society of Art. 

Production really took off in the decade that followed, promoted by James Busby – now known as the ‘Father of Australian wine’ – who collected thousands of vines from around Europe and took them to Australia for distribution.  One of the varieties he introduced, Shiraz (the same as Syrah in France), is now Australia’s most widely planted variety with examples found in virtually every major region of the country from the heat of the Barossa to the humidity of the Hunter Valley.  As you might expect, the styles produced vary widely.

Among our favourites is the Wine Society’s Exhibition bottling, produced for the Society by the highly-regarded Mount Langi Ghiran estate.  This comes from the Grampians region of Western Victoria where the vineyards are situated more than 300m (1000 ft) above sea level, offering a cooler than average climate and a noticeably fresher, brighter wine as a result.  Full-flavoured – blackberry and chocolate, with subtle cinnamon and eucalyptus – this is a rich and fairly full-bodied red but, despite the quoted 14% alcohol, not heavy.  We found it really well-balanced and a perfect match to a nice juicy rib-eye steak.

We opened the 2017, which had been sitting under our stairs for a couple of years.  The Wine Society currently have the 2018 vintage on their list at £15.50 – a good buy, but I’d advise keeping it until 2023 at least, to allow it to begin to reach its peak.  And, whenever you open it, do decant it well in advance of drinking – a glass from our bottle actually tasted better the following day.  Now that is a new idea to consider.

Drink Good Wine

A room in which I used to lecture had a sign on the wall which read “Life’s too short to drink bad wine”.  I agree!  Add to that a campaign which was run in France a few years ago which translated as ‘drink less, drink better’ and you have my wine philosophy summed up.

But how do you define ‘bad’ wine?  I used to pose that question to my classes on occasions.  Interestingly, the replies rarely considered the actual quality of the wine; they were usually along the lines of ‘it depends on the sort of wine you like’.  But is that true?

With improvements in vine growing and winemaking knowledge in recent decades, there are almost no badly-made wines on the shelves today (which were once all too common).  You may find the odd faulty bottle – one where the wine is corked or oxidised, for example – but they are, thankfully, quite rare. 

But, having said that about badly-made wines, there are certainly many shades of ‘good’.  Sadly, some of the most famous commercial brands produce wines that are pretty basic and unexciting with very little to interest the genuine wine lover – but even these are technically correctly made.  And many are big sellers, which brings us back to the point about ‘it depends on the wine you like’. 

And, of course, as I have said many times before, people have their own ideas about what is good and bad.  How often have I heard ‘I hate all Chardonnay’? 

Those who share that view would have left Trinity Hill’s example from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand (£18.50) on the shelf at Grape and Grind.  Fortunately, I didn’t and we enjoyed a delicious, fresh, creamy wine with lovely lemon and peach hints and a delightful long, dry finish.  Although the wine was actually fermented in oak barrels, there was none of the overt oak flavouring that I think many Chardonnay haters associate wrongly with the grape variety.  Here, the barrel added just a little extra hard-to-identify complexity that made the wine more interesting and very drinkable.

So, back to that sign on the wall.  But don’t just settle for avoiding the bad.  Look around and find the best you can.  Life’s too short to do anything else.

The Truth about Rioja

Rioja is one of Spain’s best known and most popular wines.  But, based on comments made to me, it’s also one of the most misunderstood.  Over the years, I’ve been told that Rioja is a brand name, a grape variety, that it can only be red and that it’s always very oaky in taste.  If you agree with any of those statements (or even if you don’t), then please read on!

In fact, Rioja is a wine region.  It’s in northern Spain starting about an hour and a half drive south of Bilbao and running roughly south-east in a wide swathe on both sides of the River Ebro ending a way short of the town of Zaragoza.  Climatically, it’s quite a diverse region with the north-west being relatively cool with a continental climate while, further east, there is a distinct Mediterranean influence making that part of the region much warmer.

The wine is usually made from a blend of grape varieties: Tempranillo and Garnacha (aka Grenache) are the main grapes for the reds and rosados (rosés) while Viura and Malvasia are used for the whites.

So, if Rioja isn’t a grape variety and doesn’t have to be red, how about the suggestion that its wines are always very oaky?  Well, that’s not true either as you can easily discover by taking a quick look at the label. 

If it says ‘Reserva’ or ‘Gran Reserva’, the wine will, by law, have spent some time in oak barrels – at least 2 years for Gran Reservas, but even they are not necessarily very oaky in taste.  The Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva I opened recently (Majestic, £17.99) had plenty of red and black fruit flavours and was beautifully rounded and soft.  Yes, there was some oak influence as you might expect – hints of vanilla and leather – but this was in no way a wine dominated by its oak character.

But, if this isn’t your style, look for wines labelled ‘Crianza’, (which will, admittedly, have spent a few months in a barrel, but not long enough to impart any real oaky flavour) or, perhaps better, a wine with none of these designations on their label which will, very likely, have been aged entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve their full fruit character.

And, as for Rioja being a brand?  Well, I suppose it’s well enough known to be described as such, but that’s not the truth of the name.

Wind from Africa

Have you noticed how drinking wine can often trigger memories?  That was certainly true when I opened a bottle of red from Crete recently.   My wife and I visited the Greek island a few years ago – and not just to taste the wine.

We’re both fans of the music of Joni Mitchell and I was always fascinated by the line in the song ‘Carey’ released, amazingly, 50 years ago this year on her ‘Blue’ album.  What did she mean about ‘the wind was in from Africa and last night I couldn’t sleep’?  Leafing through a tourist guide before we went to Crete, I discovered the answer: for a time in the late 1960s, Joni Mitchell travelled round Europe and lived with some friends for a few months in the Cretean village of Matala in caves facing the sea into which an unpleasantly hot wind blew straight from Africa.  Hence the start of the song. 

We just had to take a bus across the island to the same village which still had a real hippy feel about it. 

But what about the local wines?  We sampled quite a few while we were there and some were very good indeed.  We were particularly impressed with those made from a local red grape, Kotsifali.

Unfortunately, not many reach the UK, so it was a rare treat recently to be able to find a bottle from the producer Lyrarakis made from that same Kotsifali grape (Corks, £11.99).  If you like Merlot, you’ll love this: really refreshing with attractive soft, black fruits, just enough tannin to make the wine interesting and quite a long gentle finish.  A really satisfying and quaffable red; perhaps not over complex but so drinkable.

Food match: we enjoyed it with grilled lamb – the grilling giving the meat a smoky edge which complemented the wine well; barbecuing would have the same effect.  But I also had some left in my glass later in the evening when I discovered that this is one of the reds that works really well with dark chocolate – with a Joni Mitchell record playing in the background, of course!

Look to Washington

The United States is the world’s 4th largest wine producer (behind Italy, France and Spain) and, surprisingly, every one of America’s 50 states has some commercial wineries.  Yes – even Alaska, apparently, despite its location way further north than the normally accepted limits for ripening grapes.  Top of the tree is California – that state makes almost 90% of the USA’s entire wine output including some of the world’s most expensive bottles as well as many for more every day drinking that you can find on any supermarket shelf. 

But, for today, I’m going to ignore both of these extremes and focus on Washington state.  It actually has the 2nd largest wine production after California – a very distant 2nd, admittedly, making less than a tenth as much wine as that giant, but look around the shelves and you’ll find some interesting and attractive wines from there in a diversity of styles. 

The majority of the state’s vineyards are away from the Pacific coast, to the east of the Cascade Mountains and in their rain shadow, which means that much of the area is semi-desert and growing vines is dependent on irrigation using water from the local rivers.  Washington’s location, straddling the 46°N line of latitude (which equates to northern Bordeaux/southern Burgundy in European terms), is ideal for vineyards and the short, hot, sunny, dry summers are perfect for ripening both red and white grapes.

We opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon recently from Chateau Ste Michelle, easily the state’s biggest producer (Majestic, £14.99).  Lovely deep colour with subtle black fruit and cinnamon on the nose.  The palate is fresh with more black fruits – blackberries and black plums – soft tannins and a distinctly oaky overtone.  The finish is, perhaps, a little shorter than you might expect from a wine at this price but it’s a very drinkable glassful, nonetheless, particularly when paired with a tasty beef or game casserole.

It may be easier to find something from California but, on the strength of this and a few others I have tasted, Washington state has some attractive offerings, too.

Dreaming of the Sea?

“The Sea Breeze” may seem a strange name for a wine.  But, in the case of Château La Négly’s La Brise Marine (to give the wine its French title), it’s not just a piece of marketing, there is definitely a reason behind it.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, without the cooling effect on the vines of the winds from the sea, this wine could never have been made – certainly not in the lovely aromatic, crisp style we found when we opened a bottle recently (available from Corks or Grape and Grind, around £16). 

Let me explain.  La Brise Marine is from vineyards near Narbonne in the Languedoc, that delightful, sun-drenched part of southern France.  However, summer temperatures here can top 40°C (104°F); indeed, a couple of years ago, a new French record high of 46°C (close to 115°F) was set in a village not far to the east of La Négly’s vineyards.  At these temperatures, vines struggle and often shut down completely to protect themselves.  The one saving factor is often a cooling sea breeze so, having vineyards in the Appellation of La Clape, less than 10 miles from the Mediterranean, allows La Brise Marine to be produced and the unusual naming reflects this. 

La Clape is an unusual limestone outcrop that was once an island (in fact, as recently as Roman times) and is quite distinct from the area surrounding. Unsurprisingly with the climate, most of the wines from here are reds – Grenache and Syrah dominating – but La Brise Marine is a white made from a blend of an ancient local grape variety, Bourboulenc, together with 2 imports from the southern Rhône Valley, Roussanne and Clairette.

Together they make a satisfying, quite full-bodied dry white with ripe pear and peach flavours and perhaps even a slightly saline tang – or am I just dreaming of the sea?

Red with Fish?

Choosing a wine to drink with a particular dish is a very personal thing – each of us has our own preferences.  So, I always advise drinking something you like rather than the wine that someone tells you is ‘right’ for the food.

But, if you keep an open mind, you can sometimes find a pleasant surprise – a combination that you would never have thought about that works perfectly.  And sometimes, it will be just the opposite!

We’ve been great fans of wines from the Sicilian producer Donnafugata since we were lucky enough to visit them on a wine tour many years ago.  Their ‘Sherazade’ (Corks, £15.99) is a delicious blackberry and herb flavoured red made using the local Nero d’Avola grape.  We usually drink it with lighter red meats like duck leg or, perhaps, a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish would work well with its slightly earthy flavours.

The bottle’s back label has an entirely different idea: “drink as an aperitif or pair with pasta dishes, grilled fish or pizza”.  We actually tasted a glass before our dinner so tested the ‘aperitif’ theory: both my wife and I thought it was OK but would go better with food.   As for pasta, it would rather depend on the accompanying sauce and the same with pizza – you can have all sorts of toppings, some would work others not.  And then there’s the grilled fish suggestion.  For me, this is a definite ‘no’.

Now, I’m not someone who says that only white wine goes with fish – I’m perfectly happy to drink dry rosé and certain reds with seafood, particularly with the more ‘meaty’ and robust fishes, such as tuna or swordfish.  But Sherazade is a red with (at present – we drank the 2019) quite significant tannins – one reason why it made a less than ideal aperitif.  Tannic reds will often taste quite metallic and unpleasant with fish dishes.  We didn’t try this bottle with any fish, but, from experience, I wouldn’t recommend the pairing. 

But, clearly, the winemaker would, so it all comes back to my 1st sentence: that wine and food pairing is a very personal thing.