The Côtes du Rhône Lottery

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Côtes du Rhône – one of the most recognised French wines on any supermarket shelf and always a popular buy. But what can you expect in the glass? Some would suggest a fresh, fruity, easy-drinking wine, others something full-bodied, rich and complex. In truth, it might be either – or anything in between! Buying Côtes du Rhône is actually a bit of a lottery as it’s one of the most diverse of all the Appellations of France.

That won’t surprise you if you know it covers 100,000 acres (making it the 2nd largest AC after Bordeaux) and produces some 350 million bottles each year. The area of production stretches more than 120 miles from close to Lyon in the north to within a few miles of the Mediterranean, south of Avignon. And, although many Côtes du Rhônes will be blends dominated by the variety Grenache, in all 23 different grape varieties are permitted in the wine. So you need to know the producer and the style they make to be really sure what you’re buying.

White Cotes du RhoneIf you’ve been thinking ‘red wine’ while reading this, think again! The diversity of Côtes du Rhône includes some rosé and even a little white – and some of the whites are delicious and very food-friendly. A particular favourite of mine comes from Domaine de la Janasse (Great Western Wine, £13.95): a blend of mainly Grenache Blanc with a little Viognier and other local grapes, this is fresh enough to be enjoyed as an aperitif but its richness and fruit make it ideal to pair with fish or chicken in a creamy sauce – even a beef stroganoff, perhaps.

But, white or red, I’d say that the Côtes du Rhône lottery is worth trying; there are more good wines than bad and they’re usually value for money – you get what you pay for, so, be guided by price. For £5 – £6, you’ll find pleasant everyday drinking, £8 – £10 and you’d expect something with a bit of character, while above that, you’d hope for something distinctive and classy, which is a pretty good description of the Janasse.

Silvaner: the Perfect wine for Summer

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Macks Silvaner‘Mack’s Silvaner’ – not the most enticing name on the interesting and extensive wine list of one of our favourite Bristol restaurants, Flinty Red. Silvaner (sometimes spelt with a ‘y’) is, for me, a grape variety like Pinot Grigio: in the right hands, capable of producing a really attractive, high quality wine but, more frequently, turning out something unexceptional for everyday drinking, at best. And, as for the name ‘Mack’s’ – sorry, but I like names that tell you something about the origin, style and quality of the wine.

So I would certainly have chosen something else to enjoy with our meal at Flinty Red except that Ian, the knowledgeable and very capable front of house manager was so enthusiastic in his recommendation, particularly as a match for our delicious starters of seared scallops with roasted peppers. And he was absolutely right – the slightly off-dry, but delightfully fruity richness of the wine blended perfectly with the delicately sweet flavours of the dish.

The name ‘Mack’ refers to Helmut Mack, a Bristol-based importer of wines from small-scale artisan producers in his native region of Franconia in southern Germany (Walter Erhard produced the Silvaner). Franken wine is very different from other German wines in that the region is generally warmer and so much less suited to the Riesling grape that dominates the quality wine scene elsewhere in the country; here Silvaner (and the generally unexciting Müller-Thurgau) rule instead.

Franken wines are rarely seen in England but, on the evidence of this, they are worth searching out. My wife obviously thought so – on our walk home from Flinty Red she insisted on dropping into Cork’s of Cotham to collect a bottle for our wine rack. I didn’t take much persuading! Mack’s Silvaner (£10.99) is the perfect wine for summer.

Wine for Vegetarians

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Mount Benson Shiraz“Suitable for Vegetarians and Vegans” – an interesting statement on the back label of a wine I opened recently; and particularly important for those who are vegetarians or vegans for a principle, rather than they simply don’t enjoy eating meat. Because if this wine is specifically described as suitable for those of that view, it suggests that other wines are not. And that is indeed true!

I’ve said frequently in this Bristol Wine Blog that wine is the result of fermentation – the action of yeast on the sugar in ripe grapes. And, of course, yeast and grapes are vegetarian. So, what could be non-vegetarian in a wine? The answer lies in what can happen to the wine between fermentation and bottling. Fermentation (and barrel ageing, if that is done) leaves behind lots of tiny particles that make the wine appear cloudy. There are 2 ways of getting rid of these bits: one is to leave the wine in a tank for a while to allow them to sink to the bottom then pump the clean wine off for bottling. The other is to use a fining agent and this is where the problem for vegetarians may arise: one of the most common fining agents is egg-white. Added to a tank of wine, the egg-white gathers together the particles and allows them to be removed much more easily and quickly. In theory, none of the egg-white should remain in the finished wine, but, for those who want to be sure that their wine has not come into contact with anything they might object to, it’s best to check the back label (or the website) before buying.

The Co-op’s Mount Benson Shiraz (£6.99) that provoked this Blog is, of course, completely vegetarian- and vegan-friendly as well as being full of delicious black-cherry and spice flavours. Drink with aubergine or dark mushroom dishes.

Prosecco: A Sparkling Success

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ProseccoThe Italian sparkling wine Prosecco is becoming more and more popular here in the UK – and so it should! It’s not just the bubbles that make it fun to drink but there’s the flavour, too; clean and fresh with attractive hints of apple and pear, it’s the perfect wine to welcome your guests or to celebrate an occasion. And, perhaps best of all, you can buy a really enjoyable bottle (such as the one pictured above) for as little as £7 (Co-op supermarkets). As you can see, I’m an enthusiastic member of the Prosecco fan club. But where I disagree with many Prosecco lovers is that I don’t look on it as a cheap alternative to Champagne. Yes, they are both wine and both have bubbles in, but there the similarity ends.

They are made using different grape varieties (Glera for Prosecco, one or more of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay for Champagne) in different countries (Italy and France respectively) and with subtly different methods of production, which I won’t go into here. But there’s an even more significant reason why Prosecco will never taste like Champagne nor Champagne like Prosecco: what happens once they are bottled. While Prosecco will be shipped to the retailer almost immediately so that customers can enjoy its typically zesty, fruity flavours, Champagne will be stored in the producers’ cellars to mature for at least 15 months for non-vintage wines or 3 years for vintage. This ageing process introduces yeasty, bready notes and a certain richness of flavour to Champagne – characteristics that you would never expect from Prosecco.

So, which is best? No doubt, many would argue Champagne. But, for me, the two wines are so different, each should be enjoyed for its own special qualities.

Alcohol is going up!

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14.5% alcohol
No – I’m not referring to the price this time, but to the amount of it in many bottles of wine on the shelves today. The one in the picture has 14.5%, but wines even stronger than that are no longer a rarity (I’ve seen 15.5% and 16% recently); to put that in context, these wines have acquired roughly the same alcohol content naturally as a Fino sherry to which extra alcohol is added.

It wasn’t always like that. When I first started enjoying wine many years ago (OK, I admit it, more than 40 years ago!), 11 and 12% alcohol was normal and the occasional 13% bottle – perhaps a Châteauneuf du Pape – was considered a real monster. If you wanted more alcohol than that, you were into fortified wines, like sherry or port, or spirits. But times have changed and alcohol levels in wine have gradually crept up and up. Why is that?

There are a number of reasons: Global warming and new methods and ideas in the vineyard mean that grapes are now picked riper than previously; riper grapes contain more sugar and more sugar allows the fermentation process to create more alcohol. And in the winery, many producers now use more efficient yeasts that convert more of the sugar to alcohol. As these changes kicked in, producers found that customers liked the higher alcohol wines; they are fuller and richer in your mouth and seem to have a hint of sweetness about them. So they pushed the levels a little further – and then a little further still to the point where, now, 13 and 13.5% is typical and a wine with (only) 12% alcohol can taste quite lean.

Have things gone too far? For me, the answer is probably yes. Although high alcohol wines will sometimes work best with the food I’m eating, I also enjoy more delicate styles – wines with elegance and subtlety. Happily, some producers are taking note, picking their grapes earlier and looking for cooler sites as ways of reining back on the alcohol. But are the days of the 14.5% wine over? I don’t think so! Just look around!

Supermarkets’ Own Label Wines

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Have you noticed the increasing number of ‘own label’ wines on supermarket shelves? They are specially created by the supermarkets’ professional buyers and designed to appeal particularly to their customers. They’re often attractively priced but are they worth buying? It’s something I’m frequently asked and my usual answer is, ‘some are, but choose carefully’.

Supermarket wines have undoubtedly improved greatly over the years; in fact, many now regularly appear in lists of Decanter and International Wine Challenge award winners among far more prestigious (and pricey!) bottles. But, when I’m recommending, I usually concentrate on the supermarkets’ premium label offerings – Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range and Tesco’s ‘Finest’, for example. I find their basic ranges tend, in the main, are best avoided.

But not always! Recently, I picked a bottle of Sainsbury’s House Dessert wine (£4 per half bottle) off their shelves. The bland white on black main label told me nothing about the wine, except that it was ‘sweet and honeyed’. Curious about the contents, I checked the back label. That showed it was from Germany’s Rheinhessen region but it was the rest of the description that really caught my eye: Prädikatswein Beerenauslese. The first of those words is Germany’s superior quality level (higher than Appellation Contrôlée in France) while the second means that, rather than harvesting whole bunches of grapes and making the wine from those, here individual super-ripe grapes have been taken from the bunches and only those used – a very time-consuming and skilled process; one that normally results in very high priced wines. Yet this bottle is a mere £4 a half – I had to buy it to try!

A lovely sweet glass, but not heavy and with delightful mandarin orange flavours – perfect with some raspberries or strawberries – and perfect at the price, too.
Sainsburys House Dessert wine

5 Years and Counting!

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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?