Easter is just around the corner and, for many, the only possible choice for lunch at this time of year is lamb. I learnt this on a visit to the Greek island of Kythira a while back, where all the local families gathered on a sunny beach, each with their lunch spit-roasting in front of them, generously dousing it at regular intervals with fragrant herbs and tangy olive oil. Of course, there was far too much meat for just the families and so friends, visitors and just about anyone in the area was invited to share. And not just the food, the wine flowed freely, too. I didn’t ask what it was, (local, of course and out of jugs, not bottles) but, unsurprisingly, it went very well!
But even if your seasonal lamb isn’t served in quite the same idyllic surroundings, you’ll still want to enjoy some wine to help it down. Fortunately, lamb, particularly when simply cooked, is very wine-friendly. Almost any soft red will work well – Rioja is an obvious choice – or any other Tempranillo-based wine; Merlot, too, is worth considering – Chile make some good value examples and there are some interesting ones from New Zealand. There are also some delightful Greek reds – Nemea or Naoussa, for example, although you may think I’m a little biased by my experience!
For those who prefer the lovely delicate taste of new season’s lamb, you might want to choose something a little lighter to go with it, such as a good cru Beaujolais or an elegant Pinot Noir but the golden rule with lamb is don’t overpower the beautiful sweet flavours of the meat, so leave big, chunky reds, like Châteauneuf du Pape or Barossa Shiraz on the shelf for another day.
All we need now is some spring sunshine to go with it!
Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.
Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.
Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.
The most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.
You’ll sometimes see a recommendation that a wine should be decanted. Is it a good idea and why might you choose to do it? There are 2 basic reasons.
The first is largely cosmetic: during the winemaking process, some solid particles are left behind. Frequently, these are filtered out before bottling but a few producers prefer not to filter (or only filter lightly). In this case, some of these bits may remain in the bottle and form a nasty black mess. Although this is completely harmless, you really don’t want in your glass. You can avoid it by pouring very slowly and carefully from the bottle but you may find it easier to do this in advance leaving all the bits in the bottle and clear wine in your decanter or jug. It will help if you stand the bottle upright for a few hours first, so that the sediment naturally falls to the bottom.
The second reason is rather more controversial – and even experts disagree about whether it’s a good idea or not. Often described as ‘letting the wine breath’, the idea is to allow air to come into contact with the wine and so help develop its aromas and flavours. Some argue that decanting for this reason is unnecessary as it happens naturally as the wine sits in the glass. Personally, I find that some red wines, particularly young, tannic ones, do benefit from an hour or two in a decanter – the tannins soften and the wine becomes altogether more harmonious and mellow. There are also some wine aeration devices on the market that some of my friends are keen on, but I’ve yet to be convinced whether they are any more than an interesting gimmick. A word of caution: if you are lucky enough to have a very old wine, beware decanting it more than a few minutes before serving as it might be fragile and the exposure to the air could do more harm than good.
So, to decant or not? There’s no firm answer. Try it and see if it works for you.
“That must be from the South” declared a good friend of mine as he tasted a glass of white I offered him. And he was right. Domaine Félines Jourdain’s Picpoul de Pinet (£7.99 – £8.65, Wine Society, Majestic) has a real richness that could only have come from a warm climate where the fruit can be picked when it’s fully ripe. The wine was 13% alcohol, but belied this with refreshingly crisp and subtle citrus flavours. All typically Mediterranean – as my friend spotted.
The grape variety, Picpoul, used to be grown mainly to form the base wine for vermouth but is now more commonly seen as a fresh, dry white wine. It’s found in only a very small area close to the village of Pinet (between Montpelier and Beziers) and many of the vineyards overlook the Bassin de Thau, a protected and picturesque lake close to the Mediterranean that is home to flamingos and particularly famous for its oysters. What better to accompany a glass of Picpoul de Pinet?
There are only around 20 producers of the wine and the one I’ve followed for some time is Domaine Félines Jourdan. Their 100 acre estate practices sustainable viticulture and includes vineyards right on the Mediterranean coast providing cooling sea breezes – an important feature if sufficient acidity is to be retained in the grapes to make a refreshing wine. In the winery, too, care is taken to guard against the difficulties of winemaking in a warm climate with temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks for the fermentation and air conditioning.
Once an obscure variety, happily Picpoul is becoming quite fashionable now – look out for it in the supermarkets – and deservedly so; a lovely crisp, fresh white with a little more body than some. A true taste of the South.
Most wine lovers will be familiar with Rioja and some of the delicious reds that emerge from that part of northern Spain. Even everyday bottles can have lovely soft red fruit flavours and often some spicy, toasty oak, too. But, those prepared to pay a few £s more enter the world of aged Reservas and Gran Reservas with their marvellous, harmonious, savoury tastes. And it was a selection of these from the last 20 years that we tasted recently at the Bristol Tasting Circle, hosted by regular visitor and long-standing friend of the club, Raj Soni of locally-based RS Wines.
Particular rules apply to the use of the terms ‘Reserva’ and ‘Gran Reserva’ in Spain. In Rioja, for example, a red Reserva must have been aged for at least 3 years before it can be sold, a year of which must have been in oak barrels, while the figures for a red Gran Reserva are 5 years and 18 months respectively. So, unlike a top Bordeaux or Burgundy, these wines are ready to drink as soon as they are on the shelves although, as we found, there is no hurry as many will happily keep for a couple of decades.
4 wines from a single producer, Urbina, based in the Rioja Alta, in the west of the area formed the centrepiece of the tasting. They ranged from the 2001 Reserva Especial (£18) through a pair from 1998 (£15 and £18) and finishing with a 20 year old Gran Reserva Especial (£27). All had lost their primary fruit flavours, as would be expected from bottles of this age, but had gained, instead, wonderful aromas of coffee and warm earth and, on the palate, there was leather, figs, nuts and so much more.
These wines would not be for everyone and those used to younger, fresher, fruitier wines may find the flavours a little strange at first, but do persevere and you will quickly come to appreciate the delightful character of these mature wines.
All are available from RS Wines (www.rswines.co.uk).
Chardonnay – for many years the most fashionable of white wine grapes seems to be falling out of favour with some wine drinkers. So when a student on one of my courses said to me recently that she drank ‘anything but Chardonnay’, I had to ask why.
‘There’s too much alcohol and they’re just too oaky’ was the reply – and a couple of her friends readily agreed. It was a good, specific answer, but she was blaming the wrong culprit: neither of her objections has anything to do with the grape variety!
Any grape, not just Chardonnay, grown in a hot climate and allowed to become very ripe before picking will build up high levels of sugar. During the fermentation process, yeast will convert that sugar into alcohol, so, in general terms, the more sugar, the more alcohol. If you want a less alcoholic wine, don’t dismiss all Chardonnay, just choose one from a cooler climate, where the grapes are less ripe. One example is Chablis – yes! Chablis is always 100% Chardonnay (surprising how few wine lovers know that!) and is usually clean and fresh and with attractive green apple flavours. Too much alcohol? Never! 12% – 12.5% is normal.
And objection number 2? Sorry, you can’t blame the ‘too oaky’ on Chardonnay either! That’s down to fermenting or maturing the wine in oak barrels, which, particularly if the barrels are new, will add a spicy, nutty or toasty character to the wine. A cheaper way of adding an oaky flavour is by using oak chips (wood off-cuts held together in a kind of giant tea-bag). But the grape variety doesn’t have to be Chardonnay – Semillon, Marsanne, Viura, Malvasia and many other varieties can all be oaked. If you don’t like this style, simply avoid anything that mentions barrels or ‘subtle oak hints’ (which is how the tea-bag treatment is often dealt with) on the label.
In fact, so long as you don’t hate all white wines, there will be a Chardonnay to suit you: warm or cool climate, oaked or not – you just need to know what you like and buy accordingly. Just don’t say ‘anything but Chardonnay’.
What persuades you to buy a bottle of wine? You may have enjoyed the same wine before, a friend has recommended it, it’s on special offer. All very good reasons. How about: you like the design of the bottle? Not such a good reason, perhaps. But could you really resist this one?
Quinta Nova (“the new estate”) have been making wines in Portugal’s Douro Valley since 1764 – ‘New’ is obviously a relative term – and they decided to celebrate 250 years of production by releasing their latest vintage in this extravagantly decorated bottle. The design isn’t on a label but screen printed directly onto the bottle, right round the whole 360ᵒ, in a process, also known as serigraphy, which involves each colour being added separately. Quite an achievement!
As is trading for 250 years! But the company’s early years were difficult ones. They began at a time when the Douro wine and port industry was moving on from dark times: in the early 1700s, wines had been regularly coloured with elderberry juice, sweetened with sugar and mixed with cheap Spanish wines. As a result, their reputation had slumped dramatically and it was only drastic action by the then Portuguese Prime Minister, the Marques de Pombal, that turned things around. He formed a company to control wine and port production and created a designated area within which grapes for all Douro wines had to be grown – one of the earliest examples of an Appellation Contrôlée and one which still forms the basis for the Douro DOC today.
Finally, I nearly forgot! How was the wine in the bottle? It was a full, rich red, with plenty of dark fruit flavours and a clean, fresh taste. It’s available from The Wine Society at £10.50, but you may think it’s worth that for the bottle alone!