I enjoy wine tastings. Well, of course! For me, one of the great things about going to them is that I can sometimes find wines I would never have thought of buying – even wines that I’ve never heard of. But, because I’ve tasted them and liked them, I can buy with confidence.
And so it was at a tasting at Great Western Wine in Bath late last year. I know Umani Ronchi is usually a very reliable Italian producer, so I was keen to try their Fonte del ReI (£12.95), even though the wine’s description, Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, was completely new to me. The word Alba in the title made me think, at first, of wines like Barbera d’Alba and Dolcetto d’Alba – both from Piemonte in the north-west, but this seemed unlikely as Umani Ronchi specialise in wines from Italy’s Adriatic coast. My doubts were right as, when I checked later, I found that Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is indeed a DO (the Italian mark of origin, similar to France’s Appellation Contrôlée) from the Marche region, close to Ancona.
And I made another new discovery: the grape, Lacrima, a red variety native to this area and, as far as I can trace, not found elsewhere. Its name means ‘tears’ and is thought to refer to the fact that the thin-skinned berries frequently burst and so appear to be shedding tears. Believe that if you will, but there were no tears when I tasted it!
The wine is a really deep colour with a lovely perfumed, almost floral nose. This same character comes through when you taste – it’s relatively light-bodied, similar to a Beaujolais, but with delicious, tangy, bitter cherry flavours. Like many Italian wines, especially reds, there is really good acidity which makes it an ideal partner for dishes with tomatoes or balsamic vinegar, for example. And, because it’s quite a delicate wine, you can team it with chicken or even fish, if you like.
For me, a really happy discovery and just the reason I enjoy wine tastings.
Thursday was the Chinese New Year. And, if you’re wondering why that is important for a Wine Blog, the answer is that China is now thought to be the world’s 7th largest producer of wine. Very little is seen in the UK yet, but it’s already clear that the Chinese are capable of producing real quality: one of their Cabernets won a prestigious trophy in the 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards. And, with major players like Pernod Ricard, Baron de Rothschild and the Lurton family investing there, how long before recognition like that becomes a regular feature?
There is evidence of winemaking in China dating back more than 2000 years, although some of the methods used in the past (including boiling the grape juice with water and sugar and then fermenting the result) are hardly likely to appeal to modern tastes. But the Chinese did use clay pots for maturing and storing their wine – a very ancient idea that has been revived successfully in a few places in Europe recently.
Some of the main vineyard areas of China are in Xinjiang province in the far north-west where the winters are so cold that the vines have to be partially buried for protection each year and then unearthed again in the spring – a massively labour-intensive process that surely can’t be a commercial proposition long-term. Further east, Ningxia province looks more promising, particularly for quality wines, but ultimately, the milder, more maritime climate of the Shandong Peninsula, south of Beijing, with its well-drained south-facing slopes may prove best of all.
China has, historically grown mainly local grape varieties, including some poor quality hybrids, but, since the turn of the century, extensive plantings of well-known international varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, have clearly shown the direction in which China intends to travel.
So, how long before they become a major player on our supermarket shelves? My guess is within the next 5 years. Exciting times ahead!
Pinot Noir is the trickiest grape. It can make great wines or disappointingly ordinary ones. The problem is that it’s very choosy about where it grows: it generally prefers a coolish climate to show off its subtle elegance. But, too cool and it won’t ripen properly resulting in raw, green flavours. On the other hand, too warm and you get thick, jammy fruit. And don’t ask the vines to produce too many bunches or the wine will be dilute and thin. So growing – and buying – Pinot Noir wines can be a nightmare.
The grape is a native of Burgundy, but the growers there only get it right some of the time; the USA turns out some fine examples, as does New Zealand. But good bottles from any of these places are generally quite pricey (£15+) and I usually avoid cheaper – sometimes even mid-priced – examples as they rarely show much Pinot character. So I must have been in a good mood (or not thinking!) as I picked up a bottle from a Tesco shelf recently. Wairau Cove Pinot Noir (£9) is described as from New Zealand’s South Island – an interesting description as I’m more used to seeing a more precise origin such as Marlborough or Nelson or Central Otago. ‘South Island’ sounds as though it might be a blend of fruit from more than one region, although the Wairau River flows through Marlborough. A clue or just a convenient Kiwi-sounding name?
Whichever, the wine itself was a pleasant surprise: a typical earthy, ‘farmyard’ nose (some describe it more explicitly!), quite light-bodied in the mouth but plenty of fruit – stewed plums and some slightly dried fruit flavours – and a reasonable finish, too. So how do Tesco do it for the price? It appears from the label that the wine may have been shipped from New Zealand in tanker and bottled here in the UK. Not what we might expect in a £9 wine, but, in this case, it’s given us a very drinkable Pinot Noir at a fair price. Nothing tricky about that!
It might only be February and the border to the Bristol Wine Blog may still show a snowy vineyard scene but, over the weekend, I opened a bottle that made me think of summer holidays. Cà dei Frati’s Lugana (Wine Society, £12.50) comes from Sirmione, that spectacular promontory of land reaching out into Italy’s beautiful Lake Garda. Made from a little-known local grape variety, Turbiana, it’s a lovely, quite weighty, zingy white with vibrant fruit and a wonderfully long tangy finish. And, as with many Italian wines, it’s very food-friendly (fish, chicken, pasta with a creamy sauce – all would work well), but this one also makes a really attractive, refreshing aperitif.
The climate around Lake Garda – warm, sunny summers, moderated by the cooling influence of the water – is ideal for growing grapes and, not surprisingly, Lugana isn’t the only wine to benefit; there are a number of famous names produced close by: Soave, Valpolicella and Bardolino among them. Yet, despite the advantages of the climate, all three of these are as likely to disappoint as to please. The problem lies in the price we’ve come to expect to pay for them; a Soave or Valpolicella is often among the cheapest bottles on the supermarket shelf – and that means that most of the price you pay goes in tax, the producer gets minimal reward. And so the wines are made with that in mind.
To enjoy the best wines that Lake Garda’s climate can produce – and the best can be very good indeed – you need to pay a few £s more. If you want a Soave or a Valpolicella, treat yourself to a bottle from one of the better producers: I’d recommend Pieropan and Allegrini respectively, but there are a number of other top choices. Or, you can ignore the famous names and buy a wine from Lugana – for me, that’s a rather more reliable option than many of the Lake’s wines that are commonly found in the UK.
Two aspiring Bristol businesses teamed up this week to showcase the wines of some of Portugal’s young and dynamic winemakers and the Bristol Wine Blog was, of course, early on the scene. The wines came direct from the growers, imported by Xisto Wines and Anton, one of the company owners, was on hand at the cosy and welcoming Library Wine Bar in Cheltenham Road to introduce them and answer any questions.
We immediately took the opportunity to try the two tasting ‘flights’ of the wines – one comprising three whites, the other, three reds – all 6 made from some of Portugal’s wonderful array of native grapes. Not a Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon in sight!
Our starter was a crisp white from northern Portugal’s Vinho Verde region, Quinta de Gomariz (£8), a really attractive aperitif. The Casa de Darei Branco (£9) from the Daõ was fuller and richer, but our pick of the whites was the juicy, almost tropical fruited Folha de Meio (“Middle Leaf”) Branco (£11) from high in the hills of the Alentejo in the east of the country.
Two of the reds were from high altitude vineyards in the harsh, rocky Douro Superior. Mateus Nicolau de Almeida, the winemaker at Muxagat, is descended from an old port making family, but clearly has his own ideas, as his red showed. Made, unusually, from one of the lesser-known local varieties, Tinta Barroca (£11) and described by Anton as ‘funky’, it’s a wine that took time to develop in the glass (decanting would certainly help), but, once it did, showed some lovely black fruits.
More traditional, even to the extent that the grapes are crushed by foot in granite lagars (large, shallow baths) is Encostas do Gaviao Tinto (£9). Also from the Douro Superior, this is made from a blend of port grape varieties and aged for a year in oak to give a lovely soft and harmonious red, a perfect accompaniment to some of the area’s delicious lamb and goat dishes (mmmm, cabrito assado!)
The evening was a really good opportunity to re-visit The Library for one of their mouth-watering meat platters while trying some interesting and attractive wines from dedicated but little known young producers. All the wines mentioned are available by emailing Xisto Wines on firstname.lastname@example.org.
French wine: love it or hate it? While some are adamant that France produces the best wines in world, others hardly ever buy it, claiming that it is over-priced, lacking in fruit or just too difficult to understand.
But, even among those who love it, I hear about Bordeaux, Burgundy and, of course Champagne, rarely anything else. Yet, for me, almost wherever I look in France, I see attractive and interesting wines, many barely known outside their own area, many made from historic local grape varieties not found elsewhere. And it was this largely ignored diversity that was the topic of my latest wine course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre: “The Hidden Corners of France”.
15 local wine lovers were prepared to take a chance. And with 1 exception (perhaps the Corsican red was an acquired taste!), they enjoyed some real treats among the dozen wines I’d selected, all of which came from The Wine Society.
In a vote at the end of the day, a clear favourite emerged: the wonderfully delicate and aromatic white, Les Gryphées (£9.95), from Château de Vaux in the Moselle region in the extreme north-east of France. An unusual blend of Auxerrois, Muller-Thurgau (yes, the same variety you find in Liebfraumilch!), Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, this is a classy, elegant, but subtle wine.
The closest runners-up were from the opposite end of the country, close to the Spanish border. The full, rich, spicy Domaine de Rancy Mourvèdre from the Côtes Catalanes (£10.95) belied its 15% alcohol, although I was pleased I decanted it well in advance; nothing subtle about this wine – how well it would have gone with a lovely warming meaty stew! And in 3rd place, Domaine Cauhapé’s fragrant and delightful ‘Ballet d’Octobre’ (£13.95) from Jurançon in the foothills of the Pyrenees – for a long time, one of my favourite French sweet wines.
I think I convinced the group that there was so much more to French wine than just Bordeaux and Burgundy. Why not explore for yourself? I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
I may be a bit late in blogging about Australia Day this year (it was 26th January) but there’s every reason for wine lovers in the UK to raise a glass to our friends across the oceans – we bought some 250 million bottles of their wine last year – about 1 bottle in every 5 we drank – making Australia, yet again, our favourite wine country.
It’s an amazing success story – little more than 20 years ago wine imports from Australia were barely a trickle. But then the big players arrived – Lindemans, Jacobs Creek and the rest – with their “Sunshine in a bottle” wines and suddenly, we found we loved their style and easy-drinking Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons and Shirazes were flying off the supermarket shelves. And they still are.
But, look beyond the obvious choices and, perhaps, pay a few pounds more and you will find that Australia has so much to offer. Take Margaret River in Western Australia, for example: cooled by westerly winds and a couple of thousand miles from the vineyards of the south-east, wines here have quite a different style – delightfully subtle. Enjoy their elegant Cabernet-Merlot blends and vibrant Semillon-Sauvignon Blancs.
South Australia, too, has its distinctive areas. Best known is, perhaps, Barossa; its warm, sunny climate is ideal for ripening Grenache and Shiraz for wonderfully intense, full-bodied, flavoursome reds but, not far away, in the much cooler hills of the Clare and Eden Valleys, you find delicious, refreshing Rieslings with lovely aromas of lime and citrus – not at all the traditional view of Australian wine. And then there’s Coonawarra with its unique take on Cabernet Sauvignon with hints of mint and eucalyptus blending with the blackcurrant fruit.
And in Victoria, growers have found some suitable cool-climate areas where that notoriously difficult grape, Pinot Noir, can thrive: both Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula produce some classy examples, as does Tasmania across the Bass Strait.
So be a pioneer and try something different from Australia to celebrate our favourite wine country.